Can customs ensure conservation?

Saturday 20 March 2021 | Written by Emmanuel Samoglou | Published in Environment, Features, National, Weekend


Can customs ensure conservation?
A lobster diver at night watches a sleeping unicornfish (ume) swim past. PHOTO: KIRBY MOREJOHN. 21031914

A recent confrontation between a Government MP and a Rarotonga market stall operator over the harvesting of Avake (sea urchin) has revived calls to give traditional conservation practices greater authority by incorporating them into law.

With food security concerns and a desire to uphold sacred cultural practices, there’s a lot at stake.

As a child growing up in Arorangi, Metua Andrews says she’d often go around the island to harvest the bounty of the seas.

“Wherever you wanted to go or if there was something that you need, you were able to go to that place and help yourselves,” she says.

She’s doing the same thing these days. And with a team of several helpers, they’re harvesting Avake (sea urchin) by the binful. She’s open about the fact that she sells it from her stall on the main road in town.

Many of her customers are the elderly as well as others who aren’t able to trudge along the reef looking for moana’s edible treasures, says Andrews.

“It’s very popular,” she says. “The young ones who are working and all that, they don’t have the time to go out to the sea. They come and buy it too, it’s not just the older people.”

Maybe, it’s too popular.

Andrews and her helpers were recently confronted by an elected official after gathering a number of bins of Avake from Avaavaroa passage.

The passage is roughly seven kilometres from the heart of Arorangi, the district where Andrews and her helpers live. They were told by the MP that they were taking too much from the sea and raiding Titikaveka’s food cupboard.

“I didn’t feel happy at all,” Andrews said, after reading a story on the matter in Cooks Islands News. “She (elected official) reckoned we were stealing.”

Market vendor Metua Andrews (centre) at her stall selling avocados, chestnuts, and bags of koma – also known as goatfish. She is pictured with (L-R) vendor Monga Tereapii, sister Ina Price, and brother-in-law Larry Price. 21031620

Today, Rarotonga’s coastal marine resources are believed to be under threat.

In many of the outer islands where traditional management practices are followed, residents can head out to the reef for a feed, knowing their neighbours follow customary conservation rules that ensure there will be enough food to go around, and for years to follow.

But in Rarotonga, a number of species are under constant threat from over-harvesting.

In 1998, these threats led to the revival of the Ra’ui system by the Aronga Mana (traditional leaders) – in particular the Koutu Nui led by the late Te Tika Mataiapo Dorice Reid.

The goal was to set a specific area, whether on land or sea, as off-limits to harvesting. This would allow species to rejuvenate and replenish, while ensuring the sustainability of resources for future generations.

According to the Ministry of Marine Resources (MMR), in mid-2000 leaders with the Koutu Nui placed Ra’ui on areas in Aroko, Tikioki, Pouara, Nikao, and Aroa. More Ra’ui were established, and each have different characteristics, including length of time and the species targeted for protection.

The ministry was tasked with gathering information and monitoring what was happening in the protected areas.

A number of reports were produced in the following years, and the data was promising – researchers recorded that many of the areas showed increased densities in species such as Avake, Rori (sea cucumber), Trochus, and Ungakoa. The ancient resource management practice was having a positive effect, allowing ecosystems to rehabilitate.

But since then, things have changed. Today, many speak of species in decline. Fisherman say certain species of reef fish are nowhere to be found. Rori is absent in some areas of the lagoon. Sightings of coconut crabs and paua are rare.

Ra’ui have lost their mana.

The opening of a ra’ui in Mangaia. This lasted for one day and the entire community was harvesting at first light. PHOTO: KIRBY MOREJOHN. 210031913

Andrews says she is well aware of Rarotonga’s protected areas and says she respects them.

From her market stall, she sells a range of locally-grown and harvested products, including avocados, bananas, mangoes, and on occasion delicacies such mitiore (fermented seafood salad with fresh coconut), avake, and pomo (goatfish).

“We don’t tell people who come to Arorangi that they aren’t allowed to take from the sea. I would never say anything to someone,” she says. “The way I look at it, the sea around the whole of Rarotonga belongs to everybody.”

She says she is aware of the need for conservation and ensuring there is enough for everyone to go around, including for those who physically aren’t able to make it out to the sea, don’t have the desire to get their feet wet, or as she puts it bluntly, those who are “lazy”.

But when it comes to management, what’s lacking are rules, she says.

“The government needs to be more clear,” she says. “We need to know if we are allowed to go into the sea anywhere in Rarotonga, where there is no Ra’ui.”

The Member of Parliament who confronted Andrews was Selina Napa, who represents the residents of Titikaveka.

She disagrees with Andrews over the practice of harvesting in areas where one doesn’t live, as well as harvesting to sell to the public.

Yet one thing she does agree with her is the need for regulations “with teeth”.

“The government needs to address legislation that will protect our lagoons as currently there aren’t any such much-needed laws,” she says.

She says she doesn’t see any particular government ministry or agency willing to take ownership over the issue and lead the drive to establish enforceable regulations. “It disappoints me greatly that such an important part of our lives, our lagoon, has been neglected for so long,” she says.

In addition to the early leadership role of the Koutu Nui in the establishment of Ra’ui, the House of Ariki are also involved in the drive to bring regulations for seafood harvesting.

“If only there are regulations, then there will be an impact,” says Tupuna Rakanui, Te-O-Tari-Kura o te Are Ariki (Clerk) of the House of Ariki.

“The problem with legal regulations is they take time, they need to get promulgated through Executive Council to become law.

“Before regulations, they can declare a customary Ra’ui. These are our customs, they need to be respected, they are our traditions.”

But at the same time, Rakanui recognises that Ra’ui are not enshrined in law. They have no legal backing, and as a result, no penalties exist for over-harvesting and taking seafood in protected areas.

“We do not have any regulations that recognise these customary values,” he says.

“The only way to control things is to put in place regulations.”

With economic hardship caused by the pandemic, some residents have dealt with their financial difficulties by heading to the sea to feed their families and support their livelihoods.

Tasked with playing a role in ensuring the sustainability of both inshore and offshore fisheries, Ministry of Marine Resources Secretary Pamela Maru says the ministry is concerned about potential long-term damages from over-harvesting.

“Seafood found within our reefs and lagoons require careful management, as they are found in limited quantities that cannot support continued large harvests,” says Maru. “Any harvesting should be done in a manner that allows fish and shellfish populations to replenish.”

The ministry advises that people should only be taking enough to feed their families, and commercial harvesting should only be done with a proper management plan in place. Without planning, residents can unknowingly be taking species during spawning periods of from nursery grounds, resulting in populations that drop to critical levels.

In extreme cases, some species may never recover.

“Traditionally we have relied on ra’ui to manage our lagoon resources, and communities have preferred that approach, but we know that this is not as effective as it used to be,” Maru says.

“Ra’ui are not being respected by everyone and are not enforceable so the mana of these areas has waned.”

Moving forward will require a delicate balancing act. Culture and food security concerns, along with strong appetites, means many will continue looking at the reef as a source of nourishment. A desire to uphold traditions has kept the Aronga Mana invested in managing resources. And legislative authority dictates government will need to play a role.

“It might be time to consider regulating some parts of our lagoons and/or fisheries, and marine resources within them,” says Maru. “This is a conversation that we have started with some communities to better manage the lagoon resources in their villages and islands.”

A Mitiaro breakfast – banana, remu, ku and mapi’i. PHOTO: KIRBY MOREJOHN. 21031915

MP Selina Napa says she is deeply concerned with the state of Rarotonga’s lagoon, and the amount of seafood being taken.

The MP says she is supportive of efforts to bring in strong regulation by incorporating Ra’ui into law. At a recent meeting of the Rarotonga Environment Authority, she says there was support across political party lines for such a proposal.

“I think of when I grew up gathering seafood with my elders, and how I still do it today with my children and now grandchildren – passing on the conservation practices and respect and love for our tai roto to the next generation,” she says.

“It makes me sad to see the shells of juvenile paua littering the reef and beach, because of the attitude, ‘if I don’t take it for myself, the next person will’. We carry on with that attitude, and there will be nothing left for the next generation.”