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A life dedicated to protecting fisheries

Saturday 31 December 2022 | Written by Matthew Littlewood | Published in Features, Local, National

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A life dedicated to protecting fisheries
Ian Bertram is back home in the Cook Islands for a holiday.

Ian Bertram’s love for fishing has put him in good stead in his role helping to protect the Pacific’s coastal fisheries. He talks to Cook Islands News journalist Matthew Littlewood about his job and what’s changed in his role.

Ian Bertram is on holiday, which means he is spending time fishing almost every day. The Cook Islander, who has been the Pacific Community’s Coastal Fisheries Science and Management Adviser since 2010, is based in New Caledonia most of the time. Before that, he had been secretary of Ministry for Marine Resources in the Cook Islands.

“I love going out fishing, I get to turn the phone off and not worry about work. I enjoy making fishing gear,” Bertram says.

“As a kid, I preferred fishing to being on land. I’ve been back here two weeks, and I’ve been out at sea fishing every other day. I’m just interested in all kinds of fisheries – even aquaculture such as pearl farming.”

Bertram says a lot of his role involves assisting with countries’ management of coastal fisheries.

“A lot of the work is providing technical advice or mentoring countries’ representatives. It can be anything from fisheries management or policy, or looking at fisheries trends. You’ve got to help them tell stories about fisheries that the general layperson can understand,” he says.

“I don’t like doing it all myself, I prefer to guide them, and if they get stuck or need any advice, I’m free on email. I don’t see myself as telling people what to do, I see myself as a guide.”

Bertram says his role has led him to visit nearly every island in the Pacific.

“I like working with people with different backgrounds, and understanding their differing cultures. It’s about understanding how they react, how they view fishing, what they eat,” he says.

“But some of the stuff is quite common across the region. The ra’ui you have in the Cook Islands, they have similar ones in Micronesia, although they’re called something different.”

Bertram describes his role as demanding.

“You have to be ready to jump in the deep end at short notice. It can be a bit of a drain physically and mentally. But it’s the reason I’ve been able to travel across the Pacific region. I’ve been around all over the place,” he says.

SPC (The Pacific Community) employs about 700 staff across its many offices. Bertram says he tries to keep his ties with the Cook Islands.

“I still speak to the fisheries people in the Cook Islands, I also talk to Te Ipukarea Society from time to time. When I’m back in the Cook Islands I keep a low profile,” Bertram says.

“I stay away from the tuna fisheries stuff. That is highly political, and there are a lot of countries arguing over a single resource and they take a long time to agree on anything. That’s why I prefer helping manage coastal fisheries; there’s more variety.”

Bertram says many countries went “backwards” in their fisheries management during Covid-19.

“People didn’t have the resources. So, the key issues remain – population growth, climate change; if you don’t get on top of those then you’re in trouble,” he says.

“Managing fisheries is making sure you have the resources for today and tomorrow and 30 years’ time. It’s not only us that need it, it’s predators, or the seabirds. If we damage the resource, then we won’t get the seabirds, and they’re just as vital to our ecosystems.”

Bertram agrees people have become more environmentally-conscious over the past few years.

“It’s all about changing attitudes, and becoming aware of your surrounding environment. But we still have a certain percentage of people who don’t want to comply. That’s why you need the stick of enforcement,” he says.

“But I normally prefer to educate people, making them aware of the rules. It’s about building awareness. For land-based communities, you have to find analogies that are relevant and simple. So, for example, in Micronesian communities, you tell them if you damage their reef, then that’s the same as damaging your plantations.”

Bertram, who likes being out in the field, admits his role can become bogged down in administration, but he’s learned the skill of balancing budgets along the way.

“I’m happy when they balance, grumpy when they don’t,” he says.

“Earlier in my job, I would be travelling every few weeks. These days it’s more like a couple of times per year. But I enjoy mentoring the young people who work for me. You see them taking the skills they learn and using them in the next stage of their career.”

Bertram would like to see more communities take ownership in managing coastal fisheries.

“If it’s yours, look after it. Of course, you should work with government and lead agencies, but you have to take charge. It’s like owning a car, you should be looking after it before you require a mechanic to look at it.”