Fishing in the French Polynesian waters

Fakarava Atoll, the Tuamotus, French Polynesia – Maru’s 16-foot, plywood fishing boat, steered by one metal rod coming straight out of the floorboards in his left hand and accelerated by another rod held tightly in his right hand, hugs the eastern edge of Passe Garuae. One of only two passes accessing the atoll’s thirty-six-by-twenty-one mile lagoon, twice day big water rushes either in or out and navigation requires years of experience.

As we try to edge our way out onto the South Pacific for a day of fishing, currents at the heart of the pass are running out at about seven knots, creating what appear to be standing riptides. If we were anywhere near the center, we’d most likely be cart wheeled by the fast-moving water and big waves.

Maru, a 46-year-old native of Fakarava – the Tuamotus’ second-largest atoll – has driven boats through here thousands of time, so far without incident. I’m hoping his luck stays.

Despite a population of about 700 on this remote atoll 150 miles north and east of Tahiti, there are surprisingly few people making a living off fishing. It’s not because there aren’t fish, but because the big industry here – black pearls-has become more lucrative and in some respects easier. Though the boom in the growing of black pearls has weakened the industry a bit in recent years by flooding the market – every Polynesian with access to the ocean wants in on the business – it doesn’t require risking life and limb on the open ocean everyday.

Maru tells me he prefers this life than the more intensive routine of seeding oysters and monitoring them for more than a year and a half, hoping they’ll produce pearls. His days are routine, leaving from the docks of Fakarava’s one town around six and returning by two or three in the afternoon. His catch provides the bulk of the fresh fish for the atoll’s residents. This day he’ll take a dozen big mahi-mahi, spearing them from his boat while simultaneously steering and accelerating. He surveys for signs of a small school – watching for the big fish to break the surface – and then chases them down, tiring them. It requires a skill-set few Westerners can imagine: Steering, accelerating, scouting and spearing, all with only two hands.He is a man of few words, especially when intent on the catch. But after he pulls in his last fish of the morning he admits that he feels “more alive” when he’s out on the sea. Today the ocean is nearly glassy-calm, though there are days when it is not quite so paradise-like. Gray skies and big winds do visit this corner of French Polynesia, though he admits they are rare.

Fishing for jacks or sharks inside the big lagoon is an option, but for the big, wild fish – bonito, yellow-fin tuna, mahi-mahi, barracuda or paru, a large red perch – the ocean is the place.

My real curiosity with Maru is if there are plenty of fish here in this part of the Pacific or if numbers are decreasing. Since he fishes six days a week, he’s the best source on the atoll and assures me there are plenty of fish in his ocean and that he catches as much as he wants, on any day.

The biggest pressure here is not what the locals take from the sea though; it is the pressure of illegal fishing by big boats from China, Japan, Europe and even South America. A 200-mile EEZ protects all of French Polynesia’s 130 islands and the territory has agreements with some fishing fleets to allow quotas on yellow-fin tuna catches. But last year a Spanish trawler with motor trouble was towed into the Marquesan island of Nuka Hiva, loaded with illegally caught fish. A Venezuelan boat was fined $635,000 and its captain jailed for a month recently for taking at least 80 tons of tuna over a few weeks in the same waters.

The beautiful, seemingly trouble-free waters that surround us this day are emblematic of a global ocean dilemma. While there are plenty of international and local laws on the books to protect against poaching and illegal fishing, enforcement is very difficult. The 130 islands of Polynesia cover just 1,622 square miles of land but the territory includes nearly 1 million square miles of ocean. With a small Navy, supported by tax-dollars from France, surveying all that blue is a difficult task.

To Maru, such concerns seem to come from another world. His focus is pretty narrow, mostly on tomorrow, maybe the end of the week. He says he rarely sees signs of international fishermen – though they are out there, all around – and brags that on any given day he can fill his bright-red boat with big, colorful fish. The trickier challenge for him is that the market is not what it used to be.

“It used to be that everything I caught was sold in Fakarava,” he says, after successfully navigating against still-outgoing currents in the pass and into the lagoon. “Now, because we get so much food flown in or by cargo boat from Tahiti, there are less people buying.” He often ends up freezing part of his catch and selling it to bigger boats heading back to Tahiti.

“It’s easier when I sell everything to my neighbors,” he says. “But wherever the fish sell, I’m happy.”

A conversation with the founder of Swim to Empower

Named for the Greek for “freedom,” Eleuthera is 110 miles long and just a mile at its widest. To the east is the occasionally wild Atlantic, to the west a shallow, almost-always-calm Caribbean Sea … waters on both sides that literally beg to be swum.

Unless, of course, you don’t know how to swim. Which is the case for 80 percent of the islanders. Taught to be scared of the ocean, even a percentage of the fishermen who make their living off the sea can only dog paddle.

A pair of young American women are trying to change those numbers, founding Swim to Empower, an effort to teach people of all ages – teachers, artists, parents, even fishermen — to swim.

Filmmaker Jen Galvin documented the efforts of Swim to Empower in her movie Free Swim and book We, Sea. “Having grown up in the U.S. on Long Island, I was aware of the questions about minorities and the swimming gap and had wondered why some kids in my neighborhood didn’t know how to swim.”

Her documentation has helped lead to the program’s expansion.


“Through the power of learning to swim the story promotes discussion about the swimming gap and ignites broader questions about health and conservation,” says Galvin. “What might be the unexpected power of learning to swim? What is at stake when people are unable to connect with their environment beyond purely using it for utilitarian gain? And, when we come to better understand our environment will we value it, and ourselves, more? For many, swimming translates into a new perspective – a ‘sink or swim’ mixed with a ‘there’s no place like home’ sentiment – bringing a greater sense of freedom with the knowledge that the underwater world exists and can be survived, and even enjoyed.”

A conversation with one of Swim to Empower’s founders, Brenna Hughes, who has been teaching swimming in the Bahamas for eight years, and filmmaker Galvin.

Q: Simple question: Why is that so many Bahamians can’t swim, despite growing up surrounded by water?

Brenna: It’s funny that you framed this as the simplest question. In my mind, this is one of the more nuanced questions because there are so many reasons why Bahamians and many coastal people do not swim. Socio-economic, political, cultural, personal…the list is endless. If I had to pick the most formidable barrier to swimming, I’d say access. Granted that’s an extremely vague answer, but access to both education and equipment is an enormous barrier to learning to swim and links the larger legacies I just referenced.

Access to equipment is an interesting matter, as I mean both pools and open water beaches. Equipment differs depending on where you live in the Bahamas. Nassau residents have access to swim clubs and pools and members of the family islands have access to open water beaches. However, with recent private home and hotel development this seemingly balanced access has become more unequal as open water areas are quickly becoming privatized. Thus the equipment itself becomes a division between the affluent and poor, those with straightforward access and those without, and has deepened the socio-economic and political divisions between those who can swim and those who cannot. That’s after eight years of working with communities in the Bahamas.

Jen: I agree. It’s a surprisingly complicated question that brings up many loaded, historical harms – and when asked to an individual, it’s usually a very personal question. People also define swimming differently. Some think swimming is getting wet up to your knees, splashing around or just taking a soak. I see swimming and being comfortable in the water as a node for environmental, economic and social determinants of health – and this is what makes it a deep, rich story, especially for islanders living on such a long, skinny and low-lying island. But, for such a heavily layered issue, there seem to be some practical solutions. The work of organizations like Swim to Empower and the Diversity in Aquatics Program can’t be stressed enough. Access is definitely a key word here, like so many other public health issues. Physical beach access and educational access are barriers to learning to swim. I guess you can also distill it down to a more basic kid-adult framework.

Kids learn to swim from adults (or, older peers). If there are not adults who can teach kids and prioritize the idea of children learning this life skill, most kids won’t learn to swim. Plus, kids tend to spend a lot of time indoors. Having witnessed time and time again the emotional confidence learning to swim gives no matter how old the student, it’s also an emotional access issue. There are real fears associated with swimming that shouldn’t be dismissed – especially when it comes to the ocean. Swimming is labeled as a life skill for reason – it reveals untapped potential for achievement, health, and broader connections with the natural world.

Q: What was the hardest part of the project, early on?

Brenna: The hardest part was creating a program that is self-sustainable and community focused. In the beginning, it was critical to foster genuine connections with key community members. However, this takes time. Although it often felt like we were losing momentum, the time we invested in the community resulted in a successful collaboration.

Jen: My role as an indie documentary filmmaker was to tell a story that connected ocean health with human health in a personal way. The film and the book were ways to document the paradox of islanders not knowing how to swim – and the power of people learning while reconnecting with their coastal home. I originally had wanted to tell this story over several locations globally, but ended up focusing the story on Eleuthera because of the innovative work of Swim to Empower. Plus, there’s something powerful about telling a big, universal story that comes from a small place. I let the story speak for itself and allowed people to use my camera as a vessel for their voices and actions.

Technically, Free Swim was challenging because I was a one-woman crew and my equipment was constantly exposed to the hot sun, sand, saltwater and bumpy dirt roads. Capturing sound during the swimming lessons was a little tricky at times, especially because the wind really can rip.

Q: What has been your biggest success to-date?

Brenna: The ability to link the work of the Bahamas Swimming Federation, Olympic Association, and Swim to Empower. Our goal is to create a self-sustainable program run by Bahamians, for Bahamians. Although we had hoped that the Teacher Aides, students who had excelled in the curriculum, would become the instructors and perpetuate the program, teenage pregnancy and the prevalence of drugs have hindered this path. Therefore we saw an opportunity to work with the Bahamas Swimming Federation and the Bahamian Olympic Association to access their network of expert Bahamian swimmers. This linkage has been priceless in the development of the organization, as the competitive Bahamian swimmers have taken the project on as their own and not only continued but also expanded the program beyond the original five communities on Eleuthera.

Jen: Teachers, parents, camp leaders, students and organizational leaders are using the guide that comes with the movie. With funding from The Eastman Foundation and the Living Oceans Foundation I’ve also worked to run multimedia workshops for educators – the first conducted in Nassau with teachers from throughout the Bahamas; the next one will be in Nevis in mid-April. Free Swim continues to be an empowering film that combines the individual human experience of learning to swim with larger societal topics, exploring complicated socio-economic and environmental challenges with which communities’ worldwide struggle. And the more it’s shared, the more somehow the film’s purpose grows. Storytelling can move viewers to step beyond simply being aware of an issue to actually doing something about it – and oftentimes, watching a good story triggers more story-making.

Q: Are there some on the island who’ve taken up your efforts and are now teaching swimming to their friends and relatives?

Brenna: Yes. On a local scale, the teacher aides and older siblings in the community continue the lessons when the program is not in session. On a larger scale, competitive Bahamian swimmers from BSF and BOA have taken over the efforts and are now really leading the force. They are returning to islands where they grew up or have a great deal of relatives and are teaching those communities how to swim. It’s amazing to see how a program can expand but still stay rooted in community.

Q: Do you have favorite memory of the time you’ve spent on Eleuthera?

Brenna: The one that sticks out in my mind was one day after lessons when one of the young boys, Denero, grabbed the lifeguard tube and started playing it like a drum. The other children gathered around him as a “band” and the class sang and danced our way down the jetty. It was an amazing moment to see the ocean, which had brought so much fear, suddenly produce abundant joy.

Jen: I consider my friends on Eleuthera as family now. It’s a very special place for me. Always will be. There are really so many memories, especially since the film continues being shared with audiences around the world. While filming it was incredible to witness such a consistent, human response when people of any age learned to float. I’ll never forget those faces.

The effect of Japan’s tsunami on whaling

In an ironic twist of fate, Japan’s recent tsunami may have accomplished something conservationists have been fervently attempting for years: Driving a final nail into its pro-active whaling communities.

The first outsiders only recently reached the small town of Ayukawahama, which was crushed by thirty-foot waves. So was the headquarters of the biggest business in town, Ayukawa Whaling, one of the country’s most prodigious hunters of big whales.

The waves rushed six hundred feet inland, wiping out 80 percent of the town’s 700 homes. Four hundred of its 1,400 residents are missing, assumed dead. The peninsula town is described as having been reduced to “an expanse of splintered wood and twisted cars.”

In these days two weeks after the natural disaster the impact on the whaling town carries a kind of finality. Ayukawa lives off whaling. It is one of just four communities in Japan home to small fleets that twice a year hunt whales in waters close to Japan, differentiating them from the fleet that heads to the Southern Ocean each November.

“There is no Ayukawa without whaling,” said a 27-year-old whaler.The four boats of Ayukawa Whaling were sucked out to sea by the retreating tsunami waves, thrown back onto shore a mile down the coastline. The company’s 28 employees ran for the hills. All survived but have now been laid off.

The company’s chairman told the New York Times that while he hoped to rebuild the factory, refloat the company’s boats and get back to hunting whales, he admitted it wouldn’t be any time soon. It will take months and lots of money to pull his boats back onto the sea; his processing plant for whale meat was reduced to splinters.

Nearby the daughter of a 54-year-old woman scavenging for food found a tin of whale meat among the debris. “I wish we could eat whale meat every day,” said the 17-year-old. “But the whalers are so old, I think they’ll just quit or retire after what has happened.

“I think whaling is dead here.”

During the height of the Southern Ocean campaign which usually runs from November to March, many news stories can make it seem like whale hunting – and whale meat eating — is a passion for all Japanese. The reality is that Japan does not thrive on whale meat and there are increasingly fewer companies engaged in whale hunting.

Despite the success of the Sea Shepherd’s this past season – its successful harassment forcing the Japanese to end its season early and reducing its take by some 75 percent, to less than 200 whales – the tsunami waves may ultimately get credit for stopping the hunt.

If you follow the exploits of Sea Shepherd and its outspoken leader, Captain Paul Watson, you’d think they might be celebrating aboard its mother ship, the “Steve Irwin.” But Watson’s public reaction has been appropriately muted:

“Nature does not play favorites and just as the earthquake struck New Zealand recently, the fires ravaged Australia two years ago, and the tsunami struck India and Thailand not so very long ago, the message is clear — we all share the dangers of living on the water planet called earth,” he wrote.

“In the face of such peril from the forces of nature, we are all equal.

I have heard many people say that Japan’s tragedy is karma. People who say such things do not understand the concept of karma. This earthquake struck Japan purely on the basis of geography and geology.”

In another twist, the Japanese factory processing ship “Nisshin Maru,” which the Shepherd’s had hounded back to port a month early, is being used by the Japanese government to deliver aid supplies (charcoal, 100,000 noodle cups, kerosene, cranes) to the hard-hit north.

“Sea Shepherd believes that the ‘Nisshin Maru’ should be permanently converted into a humanitarian aid vessel,” suggested its website.

But the Japanese have rebuilt from the dust before and started over, with great success. One Ayukawa whaler was quoted two days after the tsunami: “As long as there are people who will carry on whaling in the absence of vessels or facilities, whaling could be revived … eventually.”

Whale Wars continue — despite Wikileaks

whale warsThat the Sea Shepherd’s and Japanese whalers are skirmishing again — a recent tête-à-tête included the sling shotting of stink bombs (by the Shepherds) and false attempts to ram (by the Japanese) — the bigger news was the Wikileaks release of conversations between representatives of the U.S. government and their Japanese counterparts about how to shutdown the increasingly popular conservation group.

On the eve of a meeting of the International Whaling Commission in November 2009, a U.S. representative, Monica Medina, apparently broached the idea with senior officials from Japan’s Fisheries Agency of the possibility of revoking Sea Shepherd’s tax-exempt status.

On what basis? According to the leaked cable, first published on Wikileaks website and then in the Spanish daily El Pais, it was because the group “does not deserve tax exempt status based on their aggressive and harmful actions.”

In the past the Japanese have suggested if the Shepherd’s would stop chasing them, they might actually slow down their annual whale hunts. The group’s charismatic leader Paul Watson, for one, doesn’t trust them. “This is not about politics, it’s about economics,” he has said. “They will stop until they realize it is bad business, not because some government tells them to.”

In the cables both governments labeled the conservation group’s annual anti-whaling campaign an “irritant” in international relations.

Contacted by the AP aboard his ship Steve Irwin in the Southern Ocean, you could almost hear the glee in Watson’s reaction to the leaked cables, saying the secret talks proved Sea Shepherd was having an effect.

“We have had our tax status since 1981, and we have done nothing different since then to cause the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) to change that,” he said by telephone.

Meanwhile the daily cold war continues off the coast of Antarctica. For the past week the Sea Shepherd ships have been pursuing the Japanese factory ship the Nisshin Maru ever since finding the whaling fleet on December 31st. The pursuit has now covered a thousand miles.

If things continue like this – lots of harassment and engagement, few whales taken, no loss of life or ships and lots of media coverage — the Shepherd’s and Watson will be satisfied. As will the “Whale Wars” camera crews onboard documenting a fourth season.

This season’s campaign motto? “Operation No Compromise.” Watson’s goal is to cause enough distractions to force the whalers to give up and go home. For good.

Read more from Jon Bowermaster’s Adventures here.

[Flickr image via gsz]

Bowermaster’s Adventures: Checking in on the BP spill cleanup

bp spill cleanupReports last week from the beaches of Alabama and Mississippi suggest that the post-BP gusher cleanup continues, with varying degrees of success, and that new oil continues to show up.

Near the Alabama-Florida border, a placed called Perdido (Lost) Key, BP-contracted crews have been sifting sand for more than six months to try and get rid of tar mats buried nearly three feet beneath the sand.

Having suffered 50 percent losses in tourist’s dollars last summer, the effort is being made to insure the areas renowned white sand beaches are pure white by the first of the New Year. The idea is to next move the process west along the coastal islands of Mississippi and the marshlands of Louisiana, using slightly different systems.

But locals in Perdido Key tell the Times that while a BP spokesman says he expects to eventually get “99 percent of what’s out there,” all the sifting and shifting of sand is not getting rid of the oil, just spreading it around.

Near Harrison, Mississippi, crews have been cleaning oil and tar balls off the beach for 200 days and the work continues, with expectations that it will last through next summer. A BP spokesman there says each crew is picking up 20 to 30 pounds of tar balls a day, by hand, since machinery has proved inefficient against the “small, oily clumps.” Along with the visible tar balls scattered along the shore, there is also concern about possible sub-surface oil buried beneath a layer of sand.Just offshore Harrison, the low-lying sand barrier called Horn Island took the brunt of the oil spill; heavy machinery is still being used there to try and clean it up.

Suggestions that the oil from the spill and its long-lasting impact is mostly gone seem to be exaggerated. About 135 shrimp and fishing boats are still at sea aiding in the cleanup; another 1,200 boats are waiting to be scrubbed clean and decontaminated at more than 20 dry docks across the Gulf of Mexico. Approximately 9,000 square miles of federal Gulf waters remain closed to fishing; bad weather has kept crews from getting enough species to sample and decide whether to reopen some of that area. It’s estimated that the daily cost of the cleanup has dropped to $27 million, from a high of about $67 million … a day.

Different cleanup concerns are being voiced about the Chandeleur Islands at the mouth of the Mississippi River off Louisiana. That’s where Governor Bobby Jindal and his troops attempted a quick fix at the height of the spill, bulldozing thousands of tons of sand in an effort to build-up berms to try and prevent the oil from reaching the marshes and shores.

Unfortunately, according to my friend Ivor van Heerden, a coastal restoration expert who’s been monitoring the impact of the spill since the very first day, that berm-building process buried oil as deep as seven feet. Since it was halted no effort has been made to retrieve that buried oil. He predicts normal winter erosion will unearth it and send it on to the shoreline.

He is concerned that local politicians may be purposely dragging their heels on proper clean up as a way to keep attention – and federal dollars – focused on the state.

“A few weeks back I had the opportunity to speak to some researchers at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and in their opinion Louisiana has become a ‘victim’ state. It cannot manage its resources well enough to generate sufficient income; instead it looks to get ‘payout’s’ from time to time. They also pointed out that this is a very slippery slope for a state.”

Flickr image via GT51