Our Sea of Islands: Learning From Traditional Fisheries Management Across the Pacific

© Conservation International/photo by Ginny Farmer

Kēhau Springer recently traveled to New Zealand and the Cook Islands as part of a program designed to help Pacific Islanders share their experiences managing community fisheries.

Sitting on Haunui, the Maori vaka (canoe) in Auckland Harbor, reminded me of the day we greeted her along with the other six vaka in Hilo Bay in June 2011. What a sight to see: seven Pacific voyaging canoes in Hawai‘i.

Of course, the Pacific Voyagers journey was not the first ocean crossing made by Pacific Islanders — it was one of many that my ancestors began traveling many centuries ago. Sailing on Haunui for the second time was amazing — this time in her home ocean in Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand).

As the Hawai‘i Fish Trust works toward creating a more seafood-secure Hawai‘i, part of my job is to help communities expand their skills at marine resource stewardship. One way to do this is to look at what our Polynesian “cousins” are doing throughout the Pacific to integrate science, culture and environment into their community-based resource management and policy, and find ways to incorporate it into our work in Hawai‘i. I and several colleagues from the University of Hawai‘i had spent months preparing for this journey.

To me, our visit to Aotearoa has been like a modern voyage of discovery — meeting new people, sharing our experiences, learning about their fisheries management practices and discovering ways to support each other as cousins who are connected by our Moananuiakea (vast Pacific Ocean).

As coined by Epeli Hau’ofa, a Fijian writer and anthropologist of Tongan decent, we are not “islands in a far sea,” but rather a “sea of islands.” We share similar cultural values, and a common goal: to ensure that our resources will be preserved and sustained for many generations. We know that to achieve this, we need to be innovative yet remain rooted in our culture and beliefs.

This is one reason we are here: to meet the practitioners, innovators and experts in Aotearoa and Rarotonga (the Cook Islands.) Each person specializes in different fields — including fisheries management, research, art, education, community leadership and holistic epistemologies — yet all recognize their kuleana (responsibility) to maintain their integrity in a world that constantly challenges them.

Back home in Hawai‘i, I know firsthand how challenging it is to stay rooted in my culture as the world “speeds up” all around us, swallowing our traditional lands, cultural sites and natural resources. However, retaining inpidual cultural identity and values is not as difficult as having it recognized and understood by government entities and foreigners trying to change Hawai‘i’s cultural landscape. As we struggle with these issues, we found that our Maori cousins in Aotearoa are also searching for solutions in this era of constant change.

On our voyage, we explored the countryside of Kāwhia and Aotea on horseback, seeing how their communities are managing their coastal lands, estuaries and fisheries. Given that the Maori still have active multi-generational knowledge about fishing, I thought that the concept of our lawai‘a ‘ohana camps could provide a great venue for learning and sharing in this community.

We also met with Maori community members in Maketu, who worked on the cleanup efforts of the MV Rena ship grounding, and learned of the cultural, environmental and social challenges they are facing as their fishery declines.

In another meeting with Dr. Kepa Morgan, a Maori engineer from the University of Auckland, we learned about a decision-making framework he developed in 2006 called the Mauri Model. This tool considers Maori values in conventional engineering, development and resource management. He explains that mauri is the connection between the physical and the spiritual. It is the life force in all living things.

This model is able to quantify and prioritize the four dimensions of mauri as they relate to:

  • Environmental well-being: physical or environmental impacts
  • Cultural well-being: tribe-specific effects
  • Social well-being: community-based impacts
  • Economic well-being: economic costs and benefits

The Mauri Model decision-making framework has been used successfully to assess complex situations and provide previously unobtainable solutions. For example, it has helped the communities affected by the MV Rena ship grounding to assess and quantify the impacts of the shipwreck in the Bay of Plenty.

I saw how useful this tool could be when applied to my own culture. In Hawai‘i we have a similar concept, mauli ola, which is an ongoing process of consciously reconnecting ourselves to our rich cultural heritage and environment. As our meeting wrapped up with Dr. Morgan, I was excited to return home to integrate techniques like his Mauri Model into our consciousness and practice evaluating how large environmental changes affect our mauli ola.

For example, on the Hawaiian island of Lāna‘i, the Hawai‘i Fish Trust has worked for the past two years to support the work of Sol Kaho‘ohalahala, an avid hunter and fisher who formed the Maunalei Ahupua‘a Marine & Terrestrial Managed Area. This project aims to restore mauli ola between coastal lands, nearshore waters, families and communities. By healing the land through permaculture techniques to reduce sedimentation, planting native vegetation, removing goats and axis deer and monitoring the extraction of resources, we will also heal the sea, as it is a holistic and interconnected system.

The Mauri Model could be used to quantify how the sedimentation and erosion affects the maoli ola of the communities of Lāna‘i by estimating its impact on the land, reef system, fish populations and community well-being. It could then be used to determine what needs to be done to remediate these negative effects.

This integrated tool is a new way we can effectively communicate the importance of mauri and mauli ola in all aspects of our lifestyles to maintain a holistic balance and relationship that will continue to bind us to our lands and oceans for generations to come.

In the Cook Islands, as the glowing sun set behind Marumaru Atua (the Cook Islands vaka), I saw a young child look toward the horizon. It reminded me that my generation needs to work together on this journey of sustainability. We need to take care of our world as if it was a vaka, embarking on a voyage to sustain future generations.

Kēhau Springer is the fishing community partnership specialist for CI’s Hawai‘i Fish Trust program.