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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 24. Islands of Prospect

We had flown for several hours west of Hawaii, on a Continental airlines flight, over the vast Pacific Ocean, and were now descending to the main Marshalls atoll island where I was to serve for 15 months. As the aircraft got lower, I looked in vain out of the window for a sight of land below. Finally the plane swung round and I could see what looked like a strip of beach in the middle of an empty sea. “Surely we are not going to be landing on that”, I thought. But we were. The flight touched down at the end of a C-shaped coral atoll that was about 26 miles long and a mere 100 to 300 yards wide at most. The highest parts of the island were only 2 or 3 metres above sea level. Majuro was typical of the thousands of coral isles that are scattered over the South Pacific, - little pearl necklaces of human habitation, ornamented with coconut palms and houses made of assorted materials, - timber, fibre board, coral, palm leaves, bricks, or pre-cast concrete. White breakers kept up an endless pounding of the reefs on the windward side of the atoll, while inside its shallow saucer, all was calm and protected from the deep ocean swells.

Atoll island groups make up most of Micronesia, the Marshalls, Kiribati (the former Gilbert and Ellice Islands), and the atoll groups to the south. The other kind of island in the Pacific, is the volcanic one, with a central cone, all that is left of a once active volcano. These are found in the Hawaian or Sandwich Isle group, and form the main islands of Tahiti, Tonga, and Raratonga, the capital isle of the Cooks. Pitcairn, where the bounty mutineers settled with their Tahitian wives, is a lonely rock of an island to the south, with no coral atoll around it. The larger Pacific islands are found from Fiji west and south to the Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Papua New Guinea, then north to Indonesia, the Philippines, and Japan. I was to visit and work in most of the Pacific Island groups, and to get a flavour of life in those outcrops of coral that peeped over the surface of the ocean, as they rested on subterranean mountains that had risen from the sea-bed in ages past when the earth and its oceans were being formed. The Hollywood movie, South Pacific, was filmed around West Samoa, where Aggie Grey was reputed to have been Michener’s model for ‘bloody Mary’, but Aggie was beautiful and respectable, unlike the somewhat tawdry character in the book and the film. I met her daughter at their hotel in Apia, Aggie having died a few years before my visit.

Robert Louis Stevenson who attended the wedding of Aggie Grey’s parents, described the first impression made on him by the Pacific islands in his book, In the South Seas :

The first experience can never be repeated. The first love, the first sunrise, the first South Sea island, are memories apart, and touch a virginity of sense. … Ua-huna appeared upon the starboard bow. Nuka-hiva was whelmed in cloud. The needles of Ua-pu stood there on the horizon, in the sparkling brightness of the morning, the first signboard of a world of wonders. …

On our port beam we heard the explosions of the surf. A few birds flew fishing under the prow. The Casco skimmed under cliffs, opened out a cove, and began to slide into the bay of Anaho. The cocoa (coconut) palm that giraffe of vegetables, so graceful, … was seen crowding the beach and fringing the sides of the mountains. The scent of a hundred fruits or flowers flowed forth to meet us.

We spied a native village standing close upon a curve of beach, under a grove of palms. The sea in front growled and whitened on a concave arc of reef. The cocoa tree and the island man are both lovers and neighbours of the surf. “The coral waxes, the palm grows, but man departs,” says the sad Tahitian proverb. But they are, all three, so long as they endure, co-haunters of the beach.

My acquaintance with islands had begun in Scotland where we often fished around, and sheltered in, the harbours of the Orkneys and Shetland, and the inner and outer Hebridean islands. As a family we visited the romantic and historical isles of Skye, and Mull, and Iona, as well as Arran in the Firth of Clyde. On my father’s boat we often over-nighted in Kilronan, in the Aran Islands which face the Atlantic from the western end of Galway Bay in Ireland.

Later I was to serve on some big islands like Newfoundland, and on each of the larger isles of the Indonesian, Philippine, and Papua New Guinea archipelagos. I served twice in Iceland, twice in Hawaii, four times in Sri Lanka, (including a visit to the Maldives), and once each in the Canary Isles and Cape Verde islands off West Africa. All of those islands have fascinating maritime histories, and strong fishery, trade, and cultural connections with the sea.

Each island has something to say to the world, for truthfully our whole planet earth is but a tiny spherical island drifting around the vast sea of space, on the tides of gravitational pull and the solar winds that emanate from the sun and the stars. As one of the Apollo astronauts remarked of the sight of the colourful orb of earth in the blackness of space, - “I could not get over how incredibly small and fragile it seemed”. Islands, by their nature, have to be self-sufficient as far as possible, and have to protect and nurture their natural resources, living and non-living. Their populations have to survive and organise their towns and industries, on the basis of the carrying capacity of their soil, water, and sea.

This applies to urbanised islands also, - like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan, each of which I have worked in. Until quite recently Hong Kong was self-sufficient in agricultural produce. Singapore has leased farm land on nearby Indonesian island of Batam to augment its own production. Each of those densely populated island states go to great lengths to preserve and enhance their natural environment. Japan’s islands are larger, but for most of its post-war years it followed a policy of self-sufficiency in rice, (despite the high cost it led to), because of the importance of food security. Japanese towns and villages are impressively neat and tidy, with seemingly every spare inch of ground used and cared for in ways that enhance beauty and environmental health.

It has been well said that ‘islands reflect on a manageable level what the whole planet has to face, - limits to its resources, and to the growth of its industries and urban areas’. Islander’s solutions and responses to the limits nature has imposed on them, illustrate for us how the larger mainland countries might address the same issues. The patterns of development, and specific approaches chosen by island communities, are often scalable and can therefore be applied on a larger or wider scale in bigger states. In that respect, ‘small’ is not only beautiful, - it is often wise and prophetic, illustrating at micro-levels, a way forward for larger societies.

My own observations have indicated that scaling up is much easier than scaling down. Large companies and corporations have great difficulty making or doing things on a small scale. We can take for example the failure of the U.S. automobile industry to produce a compact, fuel-efficient car. Japan led the way in that, and to a lesser extent the smaller British companies (when Britain actually had an automobile industry). And now, Indian companies are doing it.

The US space programme has led to a host of technical innovations, but when it was given contracts to produce simpler utility items, it generally failed despite the investment of huge sums of money. There is an old joke about the millions of dollars spent by NASA to invent a pen that would write in the weightless atmosphere of a spaceship or space station in orbit. Normal ball point pens would not function there. The Russians in contrast, having less money, were more pragmatic, and decided to use pencils !

In my own field of fisheries, there are many cases of small boat-builders progressing to construct bigger boats, - but the reverse rarely happens. In the 1960’s and 70’s the Ross Group, Britain’s largest deep sea trawling company, tried to produce a new generation of pocket trawlers designed for low cost and for fishing on grounds closer to the UK. The attempt failed. But at the same time, the yards that were producing wooden boats of 50 or 60 feet in length, adapted easily to the design and construction of 70 and 80 foot vessels.

Large organisations similarly struggle to operate on a small scale. This is the reason that all over the world the bigger aid agencies are sub-contracting more and more of their field work to small NGOs which are located on the ground, understand the local conditions, and can provide services at relatively low cost. The World Bank functions best when it finances and manages very large capital investment projects, like those involving construction of new roads, ports, cement plants, dams, and bridges. But when it tries to invest in improvements to thousands of small farms, small fishing fleets, or rural small scale industry, - it fails miserably. So it generally leaves those sectors to the Asian Development Bank, or to FAO, or to bilateral aid organisations. Even the UN Agencies, which I know well, are hamstrung as a result of their size and the mountain of internal regulations developed over the past 50 years. The bigger the organisation, the more likely it is that officers will avoid making decisions, and will tend to ‘pass the buck’ to other bureaucrats. The more regulations an agency has, and the longer the period over which they were compiled, the likelihood increases that many of them will be simply irrelevant or quite unhelpful. I could recite umpteen anecdotes and detail many incidents where good projects have been delayed, undermined, or thoroughly frustrated by a rigid application of these out-dated rules. But I will refrain from embarrassing the agencies concerned, since for the most part they genuinely try to facilitate beneficial development.

Not all small island communities make wise decisions, - especially if they are part of a huge state, or are under the control or influence of powerful global corporations. In fisheries, huge mistakes were made by Newfoundland and Iceland when their governments (ignoring fishermen protests), sold out to big business, encouraged the building of super-trawlers, instituted ITQ systems for trading fishing rights and fish quotas, and in a few short years saw their fish resources decimated, and their smaller coastal communities robbed of jobs and income. These mistakes may take many years to rectify.

In contrast, the Faeroe Isles, which has a tiny population, and a relatively large Fishery EEZ, well stocked with cod, haddock, and herring, has shown how these resources can be well managed and sustainably harvested. Although not a member of the European Union, it voluntarily complied with EC CFP (common fishery policy) recommendations on fish stocks, mostly expressed in ICES advice on fishing effort and quotas. ICES is the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, and is based in Denmark. While not officially a part of the EC Fisheries Directorate in Brussels, it has followed EC policies and directives in what some would describe as a slavish and unquestioning way. The application of EC and ICES advice to the fishing fleets of EU member states, produced increasingly negative results year after year during the 1980’s and 1990’s (and continues so till now). Every year the advice was to cut both fleet size and fish quotas, or total allowable catches. Along with the member states, the Faeroe Isles conformed, but the fish stock news continued to be bad. Finally, in 1992, ICES wanted to call a halt to all cod fishing.

The Faeroes government and fishermen had had enough. It was announced that they would no longer follow EC or ICES guidelines, but would take independent professional advice. Later they said if they had followed ICES advice, the country would have become bankrupt in a few short years. So they called on an Icelandic marine fisheries biologist Jon Kristjonsson, and together with their own scientists and fishers, re-examined the whole situation. They found that ICES had over-estimated the fishing mortality, and under-estimated natural fish mortality and predation on young fish. Kristjonsson concluded that the measures imposed under the CFP and ICES, (discarding, and managing by quota allocations rather than effort control), were actually increasing fish mortality, and that a totally new approach was needed.

Faeroes Fisheries Minister Jorgen Niclasen said that the country had to distance itself from the EU’s blind faith in ITQs (individual tradeable quotas), as a management tool. His scientists agreed with Kristjonsson that the EU / EC perception that increased spawning stock meant increased recruitment, was flawed. Instead they concluded that the large spawning stock was actually freezing out recruitment, and for evidence of that, could point to the ceiling to natural stock growth during the war when fishing was mostly suspended.

So in 1993 little Faeroe Isles went its own way. It abandoned the discredited EU quota management system, and its enforced discarding of excess catches, and put the whole of its fleet on an effort basis (number and size of boats, and days at sea). All fish caught had to be landed and no fish discarded at sea. Where the EC and ICES had called for cuts of 25% in fishing effort and quotas, the Faeroes cut effort by only 1% and 2% in 2001 and 2002. Over the next ten years the Faeroese fish stock recovered and continued to grow. Catches increased in a sustainable way, and the fishery sector recovered its economic health and prosperity. Deputy Prime Minister Hogin Hoydal called for an OPEC style association of non-EU fishing states like Faeroes, Iceland, Norway and Greenland, to cooperate on stock management in a manner based on sound biology.

The small islands of the Pacific showed similar wisdom and good management, after a period of international pressure to permit fleets of tuna purse seiners to operate within their EEZ fishing zones. At first the governments reckoned that the fees from these fishing permits would be useful foreign income, but as the tuna stocks declined and fishing pressure increased, it became apparent that the corporate tuna fleets had created excessive effort on the schools of ocean-swimming tunas. So with the backing of the South Pacific Commission and the Fisheries Forum, and the support of U.N. and regional bodies, the foreign tuna fishing licenses were drastically curtailed.

These island states also placed strict controls on the export of wild aquarium fish harvested from around their coral reefs. Deep water line fishing for snapper, grouper, jewfish, and other breams and sharks that are found around the larger islands at depths of over 100 fathoms, was on the increase, and was made subject to controls to protect both the fish and the corals.

Instead of seeking to imitate the big fishing countries, the Pacific states sought out high value niche markets which they could access with relatively small volumes of fish and fruit produce. Together with FAO and UNIDO officers, I was involved in these efforts in cooperation with fishery and agriculture directors in each South Pacific state. Several of the directors I had worked with in the past. Tom Marsters was a tall handsome Polynesian who had boxed and played rugby as a student, and later excelled in golf. He was one of a class of fishery officers I taught in UK in 1972. When I arrived in Raratonga, Tom and Tuene his wife were at the airport to meet me, and garland me with flowers in a typical Pacific welcome. He was an example of many professional officers in that part of the world who sought to maximise the local benefits of the islands’ resources, while protecting them from foreign exploitation.

The Cook Islands were for me, the most beautiful and most pristine part of the Pacific. This remote group of islands spread over thousands of miles of ocean, is populated by handsome Polynesians who are related by language and kinship to the Maoris of New Zealand, but who regret the way Maori culture has been corrupted through its interface with negative aspects of life in New Zealand’s urban society where there is a high level of unemployment, alcoholism and social misbehaviour. In contrast, the Cook Islands communities are well organized, hard working, disciplined, and respectful to elders and traditions. One of the national practices is to say grace at every meal. There are also prayers and thanks offered by government officials before and after air flights and sea travel. I have been in a restaurant in the Aitutaki atoll where the waiter, assuming that we as foreigners did not know what was expected of us, came across and respectfully said grace at our table. Perhaps one reason Cook Islanders have avoided the failings of New Zealand’s Maoris, is that they have been relatively isolated from western social influences ! Sometimes the interaction between cultures within a single country, has a malign effect on the weaker and poorer or disadvantaged groups. Examples of this would be seen in black ghettos and Indian reservations in America, and in communities of Slavs in Germany or Austria, and Arabs in the south of France.

Land ownership throughout the South Pacific, is a sensitive issue. Despite much pressure from development banks and western economists, small Pacific states refuse to permit open sale of land, and in particular, sale to foreigners. For the most part, land can be leased for periods of up to 99 years, but not sold. Traditionally-owned land is dealt with under inheritance laws for families. Sometimes, with relatives living far way in Australia or Hawaii or California, it can take a long time to settle a land ownership or inheritance matter. But the Polynesians and most of the Micronesians prefer it that way. These arrangements protect the island communities from land speculation and from accumulation of unearned income from real estate that is a hallmark of our western economic systems. Land reform therefore is not a pressing need in the ocean islands. But it is certainly overdue in UK, Europe, and the USA.

The Island communities are as attractive as the people. You can drive around Raratonga or any of the atolls, and you will see no litter or rubbish. Roads, gardens and beaches are well maintained and free of pollution. The crystal waters and corals of the coastal areas have no plastic bags, oil slicks or debris. The whole country is a picture of what most people imagine when they think of the South Pacific. As in most small Pacific states, the resources are scattered and industries are small scale. The islands have albacore tuna and there are black pearl oysters in the north. Reef fish abound, and there is ample fruit grown to supply the tourist trade and some niche export markets. Banana, pawpaw, coconut, pineapple, orange and breadfruit are grown. As in other parts of the Pacific there are taro tubers and sweet potato. An inspiring experience for me in the Cooks, was to stand on the beach at Raratonga, any hour of the day or night, and listed to the roar of the ocean seas pounding the reef offshore. The Victoria Falls in Africa was called “the smoke that thunders” by local natives in Livingstone’s time. The roar of the surf striking the reefs at Raratonga is even louder.

The much abused island of planet earth could take a few lessons from the islands of the Cook archipelago. We have a long way to go to reduce and halt pollution and wasteful consumption of our irreplaceable mineral wealth, and our fragile living resources. But both planet and its inhabitants would be healthier, safer, and enjoy more economic justice and opportunity, if we applied small island concepts to its care and its management. Encouragingly there has been a global trend towards decentralisation and devolvement of power from national capitals and centres to regional or provincial, and even district centres which are closer to the people. But at the same time there has been strong resistance as neither politicians nor civil servants like to relinquish power.

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