If you read the news, it’s everywhere: rising sea levels, warming oceans, degraded coastlines, and dying coral reefs. The consequences of climate change are apparent around the globe, but for fish-loving island communities like those in American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Marianas, the urgency of balancing sustainable practices with growing demand for fish, both for subsistence and for profit, is leading to creative partnerships that blend knowledge gained from western research and local fishing practices.
Guam has felt fish shortages more acutely than some of its neighbors due to its larger population size and smaller reef habitat, according to Dr. Peter Houk, a professor at the University of Guam who studies coral reef fisheries. Houk says traditional methods were mainly sustainable, because they targeted specific populations at specific times in their life cycles when there was a population surplus. Additionally, traditional methods used less advanced fishing gear to control harvest too. Many are now straying away from traditional methods and using fish capture techniques that are more efficient (like night spearfishing with flashlights). But, a deeper look into past fishing practices can reveal new information.
Some fishing practices correspond with Chamorro fish names, given to them by the Chamorro people who are Indigenous to the Mariana Islands of the West Pacific, including Guam at the archipelago’s southernmost tip. Today, the same names that have guided fishermen for generations, telling them how and when to capture certain species, now help Houk understand the biology behind fish populations.
“I often feel like I’m playing catch up,” Houk says with a laugh. “Every time we come up with a new ‘aha’ moment—they knew that.” For example, one name for a juvenile rabbitfish is a dagge’, while a rabbitfish that is large enough to reproduce is a hiteng; it’s not uncommon for a single fish to have four or more names that translate to traditional harvesting methods and times.
Saipan, Northern Marianas
North of Guam, Michael Ogo is no stranger to Chamorro wisdom; he grew up in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Asked whether the rabbitfish he raises are delicious, Ogo chuckles before responding with confidence.
“Of course! In order to be passionate about something, you gotta like it first,” he quips. In his role as an aquaculture extension agent at Northern Marianas College, Ogo is working to sustainably bolster shrinking fish populations in the face of climate change and other stressors.
Rabbitfish are a shallow-water reef fish that are resistant to changes in temperature or salt levels. When they spawn, rabbitfish release 100,000 to 200,000 eggs, a helpful trait for aquaculture.
But Ogo had one problem in his efforts to raise rabbitfish in tanks with recirculated water on land. Rabbitfish gathered by divers during late-night boating trips—the fish are less active after dark—weren’t living long after making it to his aquaculture tanks. Bumpy, stressful boat rides were killing the fish before they had a chance to spawn.
Then, inspiration. Ogo thought of talayeru, people fishing in a traditional method called talaya that requires a circular cast net. When he investigated, he realized that the cast net fishers on shore were hauling in rabbitfish of just the right size to be breeders for his program; there was no need for his nighttime expeditions.
Talaya fishing is a skillful technique in which a fisher learns to read the water, tracking schools of fish as they dart about. Perched on shore, the fisher throws a weighted net over the foamy waves, hoping it will land perfectly on an ever-moving target. For Ogo, it was a time-saving solution. Unlike fish caught aboard boats, those gathered by talayeru weren’t bruised from hours of transport. They were, in fact, perfect candidates for aquaculture.
Pago Pago, American Samoa
Over 3,600 miles away, in the South Pacific, Larry Hirata had a slightly different problem than Ogo. He enjoyed fishing in American Samoa, but as the years went on, he was having more and more trouble climbing over rocks to get to his favorite fishing spots. Today, Larry raises hydroponic vegetables alongside tilapia, which aren’t native to the region. He keeps eleven fish—sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less—in a 55-gallon tank just outside his home. He feeds them with a special food provided by American Samoa Community College (ASCC), which he dries in a solar dryer for three days before storing it for later use. Tilapia are so adaptable that they’ve been problematic in some areas, and can be considered invasive. In American Samoa, that’s less of a problem, says University of Hawaiʻi Sea Grant College Program extension agent Kelley Anderson Tagarino.
Tilapia were initially introduced into local, brackish streams without containment measures. Luckily, the streams tend to flow only seasonally, and aren’t often interconnected. This has helped prevent farmed, fast-growing tilapia from escaping and becoming invasive in the region.
“They’ve never worked their way upstream, and they’ve never worked their way into the nearshore waters. It seems like our streams are just too shallow, narrow, and fast-moving,” Tagarino says. Tilapia were introduced decades ago as a source of both food and bait for ocean fishing, one that could be raised in their backyards.
But aquaculturists aren’t the only people working to ensure fish harvests remain sustainable. In the village of Fagasā, which lies on Tutuila Island’s north shore, fishers practice traditional, seasonal akule fishing. They gather palm fronds, then wade out into the ocean. Slowly, and together, the group walks toward shore, pushing fish to shallower waters where they can be scooped up with baskets.
“In this traditional way, they will be very protective of their bay. They won’t let anyone swim in the water prior to the collection. It’s also been historically linked to a dolphin drive,” says Michael Marsik, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries biologist in American Samoa. Dolphins signal the presence of akule and chase them into the harbor.
Still, aquaculture has remained secondary to fa’a Sāmoa, or the Samoan way, which includes the practice of sharing fish not through commerce, but through tightly woven communities of family and friends. “When there’s a village event during the fishing season, you go out and get the catch,” says Francis Le’iato, an aquaculture extension agent at ASCC, where he provides fish meal and tilapia for fishermen like Hirata. “The first people that get their cut, their share, are the matais, the chiefs, and then the Reverend, and the chief of a family will get a certain amount. That chief of that family will disperse it amongst them; it’s kind of a chain of command.”
According to Samoan culture, reef fish (unlike tilapia), are to be shared, not sold. Although Hirata grows just enough fish to sell a few, he says his vision for the future isn’t a large stock for himself, but that each household would have its own tilapia. Along with Le’iato, he’s watched reef fish populations suffer as local fishers, foreign companies, and expats disregarded faʻa Sāmoa.
“Time and time again when people started catching a lot of fish… and they started selling it, pretty soon the akule from that area no longer came,” he says, listing locations that were once full of akule, but no more. “Only when they started selling, the fish disappeared and didn’t come back.”
As reef fish populations dwindle and boaters travel ever farther to track pelagic catch, new advances offer new sources of fish—and a way for future generations to continue time-honored practices of sharing the catch, whether it comes from a backyard farm, a university aquaculturist, or a talayeru casting his net in a wide, perfect circle over the waves.
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