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.”