• Troubled Waters

    A man, a gun, and the restoration of a Pacific fishery.
    By Mark Tercek and Jonathan Adams


n the 1970s, Dakio Paul left his birthplace,

the tiny South Pacific island of Pohnpei, for the larger, more developed island of Saipan, about a thousand miles west. A onetime fisherman, Paul hoped to find something with better pay and eventually found a job in the tourist industry. Paul worked on Saipan for some 20 years, got married and then decided to return to his roots.

He wanted to be a fisherman again.

Paul returned to Pohnpei in 1995. He went straight from the airstrip to his village, got in a boat and headed out to his old fishing grounds on the coral reef that rings the island, near a place called Black Coral Island. When he was a boy, the spot, known locally as Kehpara, teemed with fish, particularly several species of grouper, as well as turtles and a large seabird colony on small neighboring islets.

Though Paul likely did not know it at the time, Kehpara is one of the most important sites for grouper in the western Pacific. From February to April, some 20,000 grouper gather along a 200-meter stretch of reef just east of Black Coral Island. Marine biologists call this a spawning aggregation, and fishing communities in the Pacific islands have known about the phenomenon for centuries at least. Since grouper do not spawn until they are five years old, only the largest fish, some 6 feet long, gather near Black Coral Island. This makes for great fishing, but it also makes grouper particularly vulnerable. If large numbers of boats work the reef during the spawning aggregation, they can remove the individual fish capable of producing the most offspring at the most crucial time in their life history, which can decimate a population.

Paul’s family and his village depended on those fish and on everything else the reef provided. For this reason, the local chiefs who manage village affairs traditionally banned fishing while the grouper gathered to spawn. The long-standing prohibition on fishing during the spawning aggregation near Black Coral Island allowed that remarkable natural dynamic to survive. In other places, intense fishing pressure on spawning aggregations can reduce them to almost nothing in less than five years, and once that happens, they do not recover.

The ban near Black Coral Island epitomizes the community rules that economist Elinor Ostrom highlights as solutions to the tragedy of the commons. In effect, the community acted as owner of what are otherwise public waters. Creating some form of ownership—whether through the community, or through tradable quotas as in Morro Bay, California, or through leased oyster beds as in Louisiana—can be crucial to marine conservation. This does not imply that all rights over a resource should be turned over to private interests, but recognizes that a degree of ownership can bring a willingness to invest time and energy in protecting nature.

When he returned to Pohnpei, Paul did not realize that the island had changed. Starting in the 1980s, people no longer lived off what they could grow or the fish they could catch but depended on cash to buy food and other necessities. The shifting economy weakened traditional restrictions on fishing. When Paul put out his nets in 1995, they came back nearly empty. Corals in the area had been heavily damaged by anchors and had been trampled by numerous fishermen working in the area. Dead fish, bird bones and turtle carapaces littered Black Coral’s beaches.
The reef had not passed the point of no return, but it was close. Paul was angry. He headed to the government offices in Pohnpei’s main town of Kolonia, reported on the reef’s deterioration and asked what they were doing about it. Unfortunately, the government was part of the problem. Pohnpei is one of four states in the Federated States of Micronesia, and in the 1990s the government had decided to invest heavily to develop its fishing industry. People fished for themselves, and the government collected license fees from foreign commercial fishing boats, but Pohnpei had no domestic industry to speak of. To change that, the government began giving out boats, motors and nets so that people could catch more fish, built warehouses to store this fish, promoted exports and so on. Paul then visited the local Nature Conservancy office, but it had only three people working at the time and was unable to help.

Paul’s next step will not be found in any list of the best practices of conservation. He got back in his boat with a 15-horsepower engine, a spotlight, a bottle of bourbon and a shotgun. He would defend Black Coral Island himself. Paul announced to the adjacent communities that Black Coral was now closed to fishing. His neighbors, many of them family, balked. They had become accustomed to fishing wherever and whenever they wanted.

Since neither the government nor the community was willing or able to enforce rules on how the commons should be used, Paul did so himself. He looked and acted a bit like a drill sergeant but also had something of a royal bearing, descended as he was from the family that ruled the southern kingdom of Pohnpei. No one really wanted to mess with him. He patrolled the waters and enforced his fishing ban 24 hours a day. At night, when most fishing took place, he focused his spotlight and fired warning blasts at any boat that came near. The government attempted to remove Paul from the island, thinking perhaps he had lost his mind, but he took shots at them, too, so they left him alone.

After three years of Paul’s constant vigilance, local fishermen gradually began to notice more and larger fish, not only on the reef Paul defended, but also along stretches of reef nearby. Kehpara was once again full of fish, and as the population recovered, fish spilled over into adjacent areas. Bill Raynor, who ran the Conservancy office on Pohnpei, went out to the island—in broad daylight and waving a white flag, just in case—to ask Paul’s permission to bring local chiefs and fishermen to see what was happening.

Paul agreed, and when the guests snorkeled around the reef, they were astonished.
The news spread quickly around the island, and soon other communities wanted their own no-fishing areas. These are now known by the unlovely name “no-take marine reserves,” but a more telling name would be “fish factories.” Local communities now defend them, though few if any people want to grab a shotgun.

Instead, in 1999 the Pohnpei legislature declared 11 islands, including Paul’s, to be state-protected sanctuaries under the Pohnpei Sanctuary Act. This act, the first of its kind in the Federated States of Micronesia, prohibited fishing and collecting in these areas and has since spawned similar legislation in other islands and nations.

Today Pohnpei has 20 marine reserves, and the demand for more outstrips the capacity of the government and private organizations. The grouper spawning aggregation near Black Coral Island has fully recovered, and each year the number of returning adults increases. Neighboring islets boast huge colonies of seabirds. Sea turtles again nest on the beaches. Fishermen and conservationists alike continue to flock to Black Coral Island, gaining inspiration to set up their own community marine-protected areas.

In 2006, the presidents of five countries and territories in Micronesia—Palau, Guam, the Northern Marianas, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands—declared that they would protect 30 percent of their near-shore marine areas and 20 percent of their terrestrial areas by 2020. They called their commitment the Micronesia Challenge.

Paul’s pioneering efforts have fostered widespread support to move forward on a national system of parks and protected areas for the entire Federated States of Micronesia, more than 600 islands spread across 1,500 miles of the Pacific. In 2001, the Pohnpei state government appointed Paul one of the first state marine conservation officers, and through this position, he trained and motivated a new generation of marine conservationists working to protect and rehabilitate Pohnpei’s reefs to their former bounty. In 2006, Condé Nast Traveler magazine recognized him as an environmental hero.

Dakio Paul died in 2009. Before he died, he saw the seeds he planted in Pohnpei take root across the entire region.