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Dossier

Across the Salty Roads

An inspiring journey hitchhiking by sail across the South Pacific Islands to collect stories of locals taking the initiative in the fight against climate change.

Arrival

Guillaume reached his first island destination on 15 May, filled with mounting anticipation and excitement to start immersing himself in the culture of the Marquesas. Here’s the story of his arrival:

15 May 2017
Ua Huka, Marquesas

“This photo was taken the morning of the 25th day of my trip across the South Pacific Ocean, just as we arrived on the island of Ua Huka. Just two minutes earlier, our boat was greeted by a pod of wild dolphins dancing alongside us as we approached the shore. It has been quite a ride so far — one that featured prominent cameos by sharks, killer whales, sea turtles, and manta rays; fishing for mahi mahi and tuna; shooting stars overhead to keep us awake at the helm; and a bunch of sudden squalls to keep us clean.

We are now anchored at Nuku Hiva, and I’m getting to know the Polynesian culture, with the hope of starting to explore their sustainability initiatives soon. The village here is very small, the local people are truly awesome, and the streets are surprisingly non-touristy.”

17 May 2017
Hana Moana, Marquesas

“As we approached the island of Tahuata, where I’ll be filming a marine education project, we drifted towards a small bay called Hana Moana. A few friendly people on small boats greeted us as we set up to snorkel along the coast towards a nice, deserted sandy beach.

Next thing I know, I’m jumping in the water with a local man to hunt for dinner together. It is at this point that I realize, somewhat ironically, that I have filmed many hours of spearfishing over the last year, but I’ve never had the chance to try it myself. We explore the bay for two hours as he explains the type of fish I’m allowed to shoot and how this harpoon actually works. We make a few catches. But by the end, I’m worn out, and I’m pretty sure I’m the most inelegant underwater hunter ever.

I’m pretty stubborn, so I do eventually manage to catch a nice small fish after about six tries. When we come back to the beach, I make sure I get a photo with the octopus we caught (and when I say ‘we’ I mean ‘he’).

We end our day eating our fresh-caught fish prepared in coconut milk with sweet rice, gazing out at a romantic sunset, a wall of palm trees, and some 62-foot catamarans.“

17 May 2017
Tahuata, Marquesas

“In Tahuata, I went fishing with two old sea dogs.

I met Louis Joseph while filming a local educational marine area. He started fishing when he was around 10 years old. When he was 20, he left the Marquesas Islands and moved to France for 30 years. Upon his return, he was surprised to see how the ocean had changed. The beach on which he used to race his horse had almost completely disappeared, and the fish stock had greatly diminished. He got involved in the marine educational project teaching kids about the sea, the dangers of overfishing, and the need to keep plastics out of the oceans.

We jumped on his very small, very old, and very colourful fishing boat around midnight, heading a few miles away from the island. We joined another vessel and prepared our fishing lines, but no rods. My new friends were two of the last fishermen using handline fishing the good old way, preferring to feel the tension on the line with both hands. In the first 10 minutes, they lost their battles with the first couple of fishes, only bringing back half-eaten sardines. It took another 10 minutes to get something moving out of the ocean. A nice yellowfin tuna gave us a good fight before eventually being reeled in to land on the wooden deck. As the next five hours passed, I got involved in the work, listening to their teachings as I caught one or two beasts myself. At some point, I realized Pablo had been letting go of the line for a good minute or so to let the fish swim away and drag it down deep. When he finally brought it back, only the head of a tuna was left on the hook. The rest had been eaten by a shark, certainly a big one, hungry enough to seamlessly snatch it from us petty humans. The sailors kept on cracking jokes, and we had lots of fun even though I could only understand half the things they said.

I must admit the whole thing was not all fun and games. With no land in sight, very agitated water, only a tiny camera screen to look at, and the constant smell of fish guts and blood, my stomach wasn’t exactly in its regular state. This had to be one of my hardest days of filming.

Overall, these will go down as great memories and this journey helped me better understand the challenges these fishermen face on a day-to-day basis. The ocean life in this area is a pillar of the Marquesan community, and they know they need to keep taking the greatest care of it.”

To hear more about Guillaume’s arrival on dry land and first impressions of the Marquesas, listen to our conversation with him as he landed on the island of Tahuata:

Profile

The Marquesas: Environmentalism in the South Pacific

By Michael Barrus

The Marquesas are a striking chain of volcanic islands that jut up from the sea in the South Pacific. Thousands of miles from the nearest continent, they represent, to many, an outpost from the rest of the world — islands in both the literal and figurative sense. In the early 20th century, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl travelled to the Marquesas with the sole intention of escaping civilization. They were, in his eyes, a last refuge from the corruption of humanity, a platonic ideal of wild places.

It’s easy to see why he might have had this idea — at the time of Heyerdahl’s arrival, the South Pacific was one of the least densely populated regions of the world. The steep, mountainous terrain of the islands is largely undeveloped, and many islands are cloaked in dense tropical forest. The seas surrounding the Marquesas are nutrient rich, with an abundance of plankton supporting the ecosystem of larger marine animals.

But despite their idyllic appearance, the Marquesas had already been irreparably changed by the time Heyerdahl arrived.

The first Polynesian migrants to populate these islands brought with them junglefowl, dogs, and pigs; the Europeans who followed brought even more foreign species, including rats, goats, scorpions, mosquitoes, and horses. These species devastated the delicate ecology of the islands, driving native birds, invertebrates, and some plant species to extinction. Their isolation was not enough to save the Marquesas from the casual destruction of man.

Heyerdahl left after a few years, declaring that “nowhere on earth was safe from the corrupting influence of mankind”. He may have been right; humans have irreparably altered their environments wherever they’ve gone. However, conservation has long been a cultural value to the people of the Marquesas, and they have taken a number of steps to mitigate human impact on the natural environment of the islands. In recent history, they’ve established a system of ecological reserves to protect vulnerable and ecologically valuable regions of the islands, submitted several islands for consideration as UNESCO World Heritage sites, and started programs in which schoolchildren take an active role in caring for local marine environments.

The traditional practice of rahui, which designates a given resource as off-limits to harvest, is now actively taught in schools. With a bit of luck, these commitments towards stewardship could preserve the Marquesas so that they remain wild places for generations to come.

Culture

Rahui and the tradition of conservation

By Michael Barrus

The idea of environmental conservation is deeply engrained in the culture of the Marquesas. Long before the relative formalities of UNESCO World Heritage Sites or Marine Protected Areas, the Polynesians adhered to the practice of rahui.

Rahui is the traditional way to protect species and areas. It was used in ancient times by chiefs to designate and protect areas,” explains Pascale Salaun, the head of the French Polynesia branch of the French Biodiversity Agency.

These protections may have been put in place for several reasons, but central among them was the desire to conserve scarce resources. For example, a rahui might be placed over a grove of coconut palms if those trees were in danger of being overharvested, so that they could be allowed to replenish themselves. Similar to modern nature reserves, or Marine Protected Areas, which have been established across the Pacific, this designation of a rahui over a specific resource or area would allow the resources in that area to regenerate free of human interference. This form of prohibition is very effective in the Marquesas, according to Salaun.

“When you [designate] an area where there are rahui rules, everybody will respect it, because there is a deep respect [for] the decisions made by chiefs or communities.”

This spirit has carried forward into modern conservation programs. According to Roland Sanquer, “Rahui is really the same spirit [as the Educational Managed Marine Area program] because of the focus on community-based rules about conservation.” Pascale Salaun says that these education programs are “a way to revive this culture” and make sure this traditional practice of conservation is maintained in the Marquesas.

Initiative

Pukatai: Educating a New Generation of Conservationists in the Marquesas

By Michael Barrus

Like many settlements throughout the Marquesas, the village of Vaitahu on Tahuata Island is cartoonishly beautiful. Nestled at the base of towering green mountains that rise vertically from a dense, verdant jungle of coconut palms and fruit trees, Vaitahu’s buildings and roads skirt a cerulean bay. It’s hard to compete with these surroundings for anyone’s attention, and the schoolchildren of Vaitahu aren’t immune.

It can be difficult to engage Marquesan students in the classroom, according to Roland Sanquer, an educational consultant for the French Polynesian school system.

“If you live in [the Marquesas], you don’t want to go to school,” says Sanquer. “You prefer to go fishing, surfing, or to the beaches”.

As a result, test performance in the Marquesas is among the poorest in the French educational system. Thus, the solution that has been put in place is not to compete with the natural world for the attention of students, but to incorporate it. In a unique program known as Pukatai, the education of Marquesan students takes place outside the classroom just as much as within it.

In 2013, amid discussions concerning designating an area of the Marquesas a UNESCO World Heritage Site, students at Vaitahu School suggested protecting the area around the village as though it were a marine protected area (MPA). Felix Barsinas, the school’s teacher and director, recognized this as a way to engage his students and set up Pukatai, which is known outside the Marquesas as the Educationally Managed Marine Area (EMMA) program. It operates as a mock MPA designed, managed, and regulated by students, and with input from scientists and local officials, with the goal of educating students in the methods of conservation.

“Our message to our teachers is that when you go to school … make your pupils interested by school. And what better way than by going into the natural world?” asks Roland Sanquer. “The best way to learn about the ocean is with your face in a dive mask and the mask in the water,” he continues.

This ethos guides the program: time spent in the natural world is paramount. At the start of the program, students conduct a baseline survey of the local marine environment, describing the area and its wildlife. They then learn from various authorities on the region, such as scientists involved in marine research and local fishermen who can speak on techniques for maintaining sustainable fisheries. Throughout the program, the students revisit the beach each week to observe and record those observations.

According to Pascale Salaun, the purpose of the program is “… really about incorporating traditional knowledge to make for a more appropriate education for [the Marquesas].

The EMMA programs have had myriad effects on the students and the islands. It can be crushing to young students to be told that they are failing in the educational system, according to Sanquer.

“We are searching for a way to make our people succeed,” he says.

 

EMMA reframes their education, gives students an important role as environmental stewards in their communities, and serves to reinforce how special the environment of the Marquesas is. The program has contributed to the success of local MPAs, as students have discouraged their parents and relatives from fishing in protected areas. And this program has expanded beyond Vaitahu; there are now six across the Marquesas, four in Tahiti, and several in mainland France. Other countries have taken notice, and Chile and the Hawaiian Islands may also institute the program in local schools starting soon. These programs lay the groundwork for a new generation of conservationists, and the small village of Vaitahu may well end up having an outsized influence on marine conservation far beyond its shores.

–Guillaume visited the Educationally Managed Marine Areas on 20 May, with the school’s teacher and director Felix Barasinas.

Biodiversity

Plankton: The Microscopic Ecosystem of the Marquesas

Text by Michael Barrus
Photos by Noé Sardet (Parafilms)

Like many small islands, the Marquesas have fairly limited biodiversity on land, supporting fewer than two dozen endemic species of birds and only one type of endemic mammal. However, the greater ecosystem of the ocean surrounding the islands is anything but limited. That is, the waters of the Marquesas are particularly rich in plankton, which is the foundation of the ocean’s food chain.

“Plankton represent the largest ecosystem on earth,” says Christian Sardet, a research director at The French National Centre for Scientific Research.

As a group, plankton are defined not by shared genetics or form but by their inability to swim against currents. The term “plankton” therefore encompasses everything from beautiful tie-dye sea slugs known as nudibranchs to seemingly infinite varieties of larval crabs, shrimp, and other crustaceans, and jellyfish with tentacles that can stretch more than a hundred feet. They are the lifeblood of all biodiversity in the ocean; everything from juvenile fish to baleen whales feeds on plankton, and virtually every marine species that doesn’t feed directly on plankton depends on prey that does.

Plankton comes from the Greek planktos for “wandering”

Phytoplankton

The Marquesas play a pivotal role in the life cycle of plankton. The islands act as an oceanic blender, mixing nutrients and spreading them throughout the surrounding waters. As strong ocean currents push around the islands, the turbulence brings forth nutrient-rich water from the deep ocean. Geothermal vents release iron from the sea floor, while runoff from the land dumps even more iron into the sea. And as all this is happening, this combination of nutrients, turbulent currents, and abundant iron works together to cause prolific plankton blooms that can spread for a thousand kilometres (621 miles) into the deeper waters surrounding the islands.

“When you have a bloom of phytoplankton, it’s a chain reaction… A bloom in phytoplankton causes a bloom in the copepods which feed on the phytoplankton, and fish feed on those copepods,” says Sardet.

The significance of these plankton blooms cannot be overstated — without the Marquesas, this region of the ocean would be much more barren of life. Besides serving as a universal food source, plankton are also a key element of the carbon cycle. In their short lifespans near the ocean’s surface, they absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. In death, many of them sink to the sea floor, removing it from the atmosphere and effectively trapping it for years.

Like so many other forms of life, plankton are under threat from a variety of human-caused environmental changes. Warming oceans tip the balanced scales of the ecosystem, which restructures the biodiversity of the region.

“Rising temperatures can cause a lot of species to migrate to find better conditions,” says Sardet.

Another threat is agricultural runoff. Nitrogen, a common component of fertilizers, can drive the growth of oxygen-hungry bacteria, which strips the surrounding water of oxygen and creates a so-called dead zone where there is not enough dissolved oxygen to support life. “Oxygen deprivation is a threat that changes the whole ecosystem,” says Sardet. “There are more and more oxygen-deprived regions, especially along the coast. This is problematic for biodiversity, because many species simply cannot live in those areas.”

Yet a number of the threats to plankton are simply not understood.

“For example, we have no idea about the impact of overfishing on plankton,” Sardet explains. “There’s no understanding of what happens to plankton if you overfish and deplete the area of major predators. I don’t think it’s understood, and it’s not studied, and it would be difficult to do.”

The threats to plankton show how complex issues of environmental protection can be; we know very little about the factors that dictate the survival of these creatures, despite the fact that they constitute the overwhelming majority of the ocean’s biomass. Actions such as preventing fertilizer runoff in coastal areas like the Marquesas can help maintain the incredible biodiversity of plankton and the ecosystem that depends on their abundance.

These sorts of protections are even more important in heavily populated areas like North America, where the combination of large-scale agriculture and rising urbanization exponentially increases the downstream effects on the ecosystem. It is, no doubt, difficult to be a responsible environmentalist, but it is certain that we have great effects on our environment in ways we both do and do not understand!

Christian Sardet is the cofounder of the Tara Oceans Expeditionan organization that coordinates voyages to study and understand the impact of climate change and the ecological crisis facing the world’s oceans. He is also the coauthor of Plankton Chronicles with Parafilms.

Parafilms is a spore of creativity headed by Sharif Mirshak and Noé Sardet. The two associates work with a network of artists and storytellers to produce engaging films. They have teamed up with marine biologists Tierney Thys and Christian Sardet (CNRS) to create a special episode for TED Education: The Secret Life of Plankton

Michael Barrus is a scientist, writer, and photographer who spends his professional life teaching rats how to gamble in a research lab at the University of British Columbia (UBC). In his time off, he writes journalistic stories and wanders the waters of British Columbia with fishing gear, a surfboard, and a camera.

North America

BESIDE is pleased to be partnering with the David Suzuki Foundation to help bridge the gap between environmental issues in the South Pacific and North America. In this first section: the Canadian marine protected areas.

Marine protected areas are one piece of a complex puzzle

By David Suzuki, with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Specialist Panos Grames.

The federal government recently created two marine protected areas in the Pacific region and has committed to increase ocean protection from one per cent to 10 by 2020. But will this be enough?

Canada has the longest coastline of any nation, but our country doesn’t end at its ocean shores. With a 200-nautical-mile economic zone and international obligations, Canada is responsible for almost three million square kilometres of ocean, an area roughly the size of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba combined.

Although that’s a big area, thinking of the ocean in square kilometres is just skimming the surface. The ocean isn’t just a cold, wet seascape blanketed by howling winds. Below the surface, life thrives throughout the water column, top to bottom, warm or cold, winter or summer.

Northern aquatic food webs are rich with creatures of all shapes and sizes, from tiny plankton, urchins and sea stars to fish, orcas and sea lions. That the world’s largest living creature ever, the blue whale, feeds on some of the smallest, plankton, is astonishing in itself. Yet the plankton thread in the food web doesn’t end in the whale’s stomach; whale poop is also a critical part of the marine food web, cycling nutrients from the surface to creatures at the bottom.

The way otters keep kelp forests healthy by eating sea urchins is one of myriad interconnected relationships in Canadian coastal waters. Although barnacles and clams live in a single location, some whales and fish travel thousands of kilometres within a single season. Salmon don’t even have the ocean as a boundary, swimming far inland to spawn.

How can we understand and manage such complex systems? Natural cycles in Canada’s coastal waters include currents, tides, upwellings, migrations and seasons. Trying to predict how multiple factors like pollution, industrial fishing, climate change, ocean acidification, glass sponge reefs, ships, rights and title claims, kayakers, recreational fishing lodges and renewable energy sites will interact with these cycles is becoming increasingly more complicated, and important, than ever. With all these uncertainties and complexities, how can we know if marine protected areas are effective?

To understand how creating a refuge works, let’s go back to a simple 1936 study of an “ecosystem.” It was a test tube with two microscopic single cell species, prey and predator. In that oversimplified ecosystem, the predatory species ate the prey, and then died because, without prey, they could not survive.

Putting material in the test tube so the prey could hide and multiply changed everything, creating a variety of unpredictable outcomes. However, one pattern emerged: It was far more likely that both prey and predator would survive.

Expanding the concept to marine protected areas, this simple experiment bodes well for one top predator (humans) and prey (fish). Even though science can’t predict whether protected areas will help specific stocks increase, evidence suggests they show promise as “nurseries” for fish and other ocean wildlife and can provide a buffer against our lack of understanding.

Canada’s two new Pacific marine protected areas shield magnificent, fragile glass sponge reefs near Haida Gwaii and important seabird nesting sites on the Scott Islands. Safeguards are in place to protect the glass sponge reefs and the countless species that use them for refuge. However, current protections for the area surrounding the Scott Islands are too vague to reduce threats to the millions of seabirds that depend on the forage area to breed and feed.

The federal government deserves credit for beginning to develop a network of marine protected areas. They’re an essential part of keeping ocean ecosystems healthy, but they must have meaningful safeguards. Protected areas are just one aspect of keeping coastal ecosystems healthy. Responsible stewardship also requires effective fisheries management, strong penalties for polluters and a global carbon emissions reduction.

With pollution, climate change and increased shipping and development along Canada’s coast, it’s more important than ever to reduce the risks to ecosystems that provide us with the fish we eat, the air we breathe and the bounty of nature we love. Marine protected areas on their own won’t be enough to do all that, but with strong regulations and safeguards, they’re one piece of the intricate, multidimensional puzzle.

This article was originally published by The David Suzuki Foundation.