Saving Their Seas

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Nature has been good to the villagers of saluafata. tropical forest heavy with breadfruit, coconuts and bananas surrounds their brightly colored homes, many built in Samoa's traditional fale style, without doors or walls. Mild breezes blow through the village and over the children playing volleyball under sweet-smelling frangipani trees. Trees lean over the sand, and beyond that lies the lagoon, a reef-edged stretch of water that flickers aquamarine and crystal in the sunlight.

One fale sits closer to the water's edge than any other. It's easily the most basic fale in the village, unadorned and unpainted, with an uneven wooden floor, yet it is one of the community's most important places. From here the villagers guard a patch of their lagoon marked out with spindly wooden poles. The area was closed to fishermen three years ago-an unthinkable move in years past, when it seemed the

bounty of land and sea would never end. But this subsistence fishing community of 600 became so worried about the health of the lagoon that it decided it had to stop using one of its best fishing grounds to save it.

Saluafata is not alone. In all, 69 of the country's 136 villages located beside lagoons are part of a government-sponsored project to revive traditional fisheries. Fishing on reefs and in the calm lagoons they enclose has long been a mainstay of Samoa's mainly rural population of 170,000 people, and more than three-quarters of rural villages on Upolu, the main island, are fishing communities. What people catch they share with relatives and neighbors, or sell to supplement the meager cash income they get from relatives living overseas. But for several years before the project began in 1995, villagers on the coastal fringes of Samoa's four inhabited islands began noticing worrying changes. Catches were shrinking. "They'd say to us, 'Our brothers and fathers used to fish for two hours and have enough for our families and our neighbors'," says Etuati Ropeti, who leads the team of government advisers working with communities on the Samoa Fisheries Project. "But then they started staying out for five or six hours and would still come back with fewer fish."

Part of the problem was the advent of modern fishing equipment, which made fishing much easier-and more ruthlessly effective. One of Ropeti's team, Myki Lafaele, used to dive with spears as a teenager, looking for big fish sleeping at night amid the coral. Then, he says, "we started to use the things we saw on television, things like flippers to make you faster," and torches and diving masks. Dynamite and bleach gave fish even less chance of escape. For a while, everyone celebrated the larger catches. But then fish grew harder to find, and imported substitutes began to appear. In Apia, Samoa's capital, supermarkets do a huge trade in canned tuna from the U.S. and mackerel from Peru and Fiji.

In his home, with its stack of Bibles and children playing among kittens and chickens, Mulitalo Fuli, Saluafata's fisheries committee leader, explains his village's reaction to the fishing restrictions over a meal of fried surgeon fish, breadfruit and tinned mackerel. "It was the first time we had not allowed the fishermen to fish in the lagoon," he says. "Most of them did not understand-at first they destroyed the sticks. We had angry words." Young boys in Saluafata start helping women collect shellfish along the shoreline when they're six. When they're older they join the men and learn the ways of nets and spears and lines. Here, as in every coastal village, the sea is part of people's lives, threaded through everything from diet to ancient deities. Traditionally, fish were not only plentiful but precious: some species were sacred; others were believed to bring success in battle or curses on enemies. In Lafaele's village, Mulifanua, "people's lives are spent more out on the sea than on the land. Their life is from the sea." Samoan people have always seen the sea, says Ropeti, "as a god-given gift."

Now the villagers are trying to give something back. The idea of the AusAID-assisted project is to put village communities in charge rather than government, which has neither the resources nor the local influence to be effective. Villages devise their own rules-from fish size limits to banning dynamite use-all of which can have the legal force of local by-laws. They can also choose to close off parts of their lagoon indefinitely, giving depleted marine life a breeding sanctuary from which it can spread into adjoining fishing areas. Given the short-term sacrifice involved, project manager Michael King expected that only a handful of reserves would be created. "Within two years we had 45-well over my lily-livered target," he says. And within six months some villages were reporting the return of fish to their lagoons. "We always told them they might not see any advantages from this for a while," King says, "but they've made liars out of us."

Some villages were so keen on the project that they wanted to close off their entire lagoons to fishing-a step project staff discouraged because of the impact it would have had on older people and women, who don't fish beyond the reef. Other communities have built special fales like Saluafata's from which they guard the reserve against thieves from other villages. If their own people break the rules, they're brought before the powerful village fono, or council, for punishment, which might be a fine of pigs, cash or a box of canned mackerel. "We love the sea as our ancestors did," says Vi Viapae, who has lived on Manono island for all of her 73 years, as she sits weaving a traditional fine mat in the village of Lepuia'i, "and we want to preserve it this way for our children."

It's a long way from the anger the project first aroused. "The fishermen are happy because they see the change," says commitee leader Mulitalo Fuli. In the nearby coastal village of Solosolo, Eseta Leota hopes her four-year-old son Convoy will grow up to fish for the family like his father. Though it means her husband must now venture out beyond the reef for food, she believes the reserve is good for her family: "It's a job for everyone to look after it because it's for the future of our small ones." Every Sunday in church she joins in the village prayer: "We pray for the protection of things in the sea and we pray that other people don't come and destroy our reserve."

Statistics are scarce, but anecdotal evidence suggests that lagoons are recovering under village control. One village recently opened its reserve and caught 400 marlin where marlin had never been found before. Of course, the flipside of such success is that villages may be tempted to dismantle protected areas prematurely. But that, says project manager King, is a decision they should be free to make.

Protecting village resources isn't the only challenge Samoans face. The country's commercial fishing industry has grown dramatically since long-line techniques were adopted in 1994, so much so that tuna is now Samoa's biggest export. Like dynamite in lagoons, the lines, which can be 80 km long and carry 1,600 hooks, have massively increased the annual catch, which was about 5,500 tons last year and is expected to reach 7,000 tons this year. The number of boats plying Samoa's waters has jumped from 25 in 1994 to more than 200. "It's like a gold rush," says Siggi Levi, whose family runs Tradewinds Fishing Co., a tuna processing and exporting company based on Apia's overcrowded wharf. He proudly opens two huge containers filled with ice and magnificently plump yellowfin and big-eye tuna, ready to be flown to Los Angeles. Nearby are containers of albacore tuna destined for big canneries in American Samoa; those not good enough to export end up in Apia's restaurants.

At 130,000 sq. km, Samoa's Exclusive Economic Zone is the smallest in the Pacific region-but one of the richest. "They're a lucky country with their tuna," says AusAID project manager King. But like many others, he worries that greed may see too many boats given licences. Already, says Levi, "there's a bit of conflict out there with that many boats-people running over others' lines or getting entangled." Increasingly, Samoa's small alia catamarans are trying to compete with new, larger boats, many over 15 m long and partly foreign-owned, that can go further out to sea and stay longer. The problem with this isn't over-fishing but profitability in an ever more crowded industry. King and others shake their heads at a recent government decision-against their recommendation-to increase the number of licenses available to large boats from eight to 15. "They could kill the goose that lays the golden egg," King says.

So far, fishing has been good to people like Leau Chu Sing, a tattooed 49-year-old who's been a commercial fisherman for 30 years. He used to work on an alia in the hot sun and sleep on the wharf at night. The hard life has paid off: now he sits in his new office, built on the site of the verandah where he used to sleep. Four years ago he bought his first big boat; now he has three, two of which go out for a week at a time and return brimming with tuna. "The bigger the boat, the more money you make," he says. He worries about how long the fish will last, but for now he's doing very well.

Samoa has been blessed with its marine resources-and for a long time its people took that for granted. When Myki Lafaele first visited villages to explain the project, he often encountered disbelief. "Sometimes the first thing people said was, God has given us the fish, so why are we conserving them?" he recalls. Now in their lagoons Samoans are learning that even the most bounteous gifts must be used wisely. Doing the same in their vast backyard of sparkling ocean will be their next great quest.