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Rāhui and the Artwork of Marine Conservation

Rāhui and the Artwork of Marine Conservation

2023-11-03 22:03:33

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Positioned in a quiet a part of Tahiti, in French Polynesia, the village of Tautira sits on the ocean’s edge, framed by black sand seashores and a turquoise lagoon. With a inhabitants of simply over 2,500, Tautira is named the “village on the finish of the highway.” Past it’s the island’s final actually wild shoreline, accessible solely on foot or by boat. Tautira is the type of place the place everyone seems to be a “cousin,” “aunty,” or “uncle”; smiles are beneficiant; and youngsters play soccer on the road. Some households right here nonetheless reside off the land, promoting fish, fruits, and greens by the highway to make ends meet.

On a balmy day in Might 2023, for the primary time in 4 years, the lagoon in Tautira noticed the return of its apex predator. A gaggle of about 50 native fishers, armed with fishing strains and spearguns, gathered on the marina at noon and pulled out coolers laden with their catches: crimson-red, bulging-eyed blotcheye soldierfish; green-and-blue-hued parrotfish the size of a person’s arm, and unicornfish with their distinctive hornlike noses. Over two mornings, the fishers caught round one tonne of fish—equal to greater than 2,500 particular person fish. Simply 5 years in the past, fishers would have been fortunate to get that many fish in a single week. The spectacular catch was a testomony to an historic jap Polynesian observe, often known as rāhui, that may simply be a key to creating sustainable, community-led options in Tahiti’s depleted coastal ecosystems.

A rāhui is, in essence, an space of land or water with a short lived restrict on gathering a useful resource, equivalent to a specific fish or fruit. In time, as soon as the useful resource has had time to replenish, the rāhui is lifted. The phrase rāhui has many meanings in Polynesia. It may well check with a administration system, a observe, a spot, a perception, a legislation, or a lens via which associated actions are assessed.

The idea of rāhui has existed in Polynesia—the greater than 1,000 islands from New Zealand within the southwest, to Hawai‘i within the north, to Tahiti within the southeast—since earlier than Europeans arrived within the South Pacific. These islands share related languages and cultures and luxuriate in a protracted historical past of commerce and connection.

fish on harpoon

French Polynesian fishers use fishing strains, nets, harpoons, and spearguns to reap fish. The rāhui system restricts, and even prohibits, sure fishing methodologies in conservation zones. Picture by Pascale Gueret/Alamy Inventory Picture

Yves Doudoute, Tahitian cultural skilled and founding member of Haururu, an environmental conservation affiliation, explains that within the Polynesian worldview, people are an integral a part of the pure surroundings: “For our ancestors, the Earth was the primary. She was our mom. She was even like a god. So that you needed to respect her.”

Many Polynesian legends converse to this sacred connection to the surroundings. In Māori mythology, Papatūānuku (earth mom) and Ranginui (sky father) are ancestors of all dwelling issues; to Native Hawaiians, the taro plant, Kalo, is their older brother; and all Polynesians contemplate that individuals, objects, or locations might be imbued with mana, a type of divine energy or authority. A superb chief, endowed with mana, had the facility to create rāhui to handle sources.

Doudoute says that previously, chiefs “have been there to prepare the administration of every part. And so the rāhui was a type of administration … however first, they’d go to a god, to an omnipotent being, to intercede on their behalf, to assist them of their endeavor.”

Divine authority units the rāhui with the consent and collaboration of the folks. It’s a type of conservation, however it additionally serves many different, maybe extra vital, functions, equivalent to to spice up political energy, strengthen neighborhood relationships, and reaffirm spiritual rituals. Rāhui is a fluid system that may adapt to completely different communities and carry out all kinds of features.

Immediately, a resurgence of rāhui in Polynesia, such because the one initiated on Tautira in 2019, is displaying how culturally delicate conservation that engages locals has the potential to create lasting change. A 2019 examine by the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Venture discovered that 90 p.c of inhabitants in French Polynesia help rāhui, a lot larger than the help for different authorized conservation strategies like protected marine areas.


The primary trendy rāhui in French Polynesia started on the island of Rapa, one of the remoted islands within the Austral archipelago, accessible solely by boat and with a inhabitants of round 500 folks. On the island, fishing is without doubt one of the fundamental sources of meals and revenue.

By the early Eighties, native fishers and residents in Rapa had seen that fish numbers have been lowering, and the fish themselves have been getting smaller. New strategies equivalent to internet fishing and the arrival of applied sciences equivalent to freezers and motorized boats modified the way in which islanders interacted with the ocean. Lionel Watanabe, a former mayor, famous that by 1984, mullet fish had nearly disappeared within the island’s fundamental bay. Watanabe was impressed by a visit to Hawai‘i, the place he visited Hanauma Bay Nature Reserve in Honolulu. The reserve had change into an official marine-life conservation space with strict limits on fishing. Watanabe returned dwelling decided to create one thing related in Rapa.

The mayor determined to resurrect the outdated system of rāhui, however tailored to the trendy day. Some native fishers have been skeptical and pushed again. They argued in opposition to the plan, anxious that the rāhui may have an effect on their livelihoods. Whereas the neighborhood knew that fish numbers had declined, everybody had their very own opinion on sort out the issue. Numerous hours of neighborhood conferences and compromises finally led to an settlement, and a coastal rāhui was formally carried out in 1984, encompassing the island’s largest bay, Ahurei. All the bay turned a closed zone, the place spearfishing and night time fishing have been banned, however line and harpoon fishing—strategies thought of extra sustainable—have been permitted. The neighborhood banned internet fishing and cage trapping of lobsters in every single place, together with within the “open zone” outdoors of the bay, the place there have been fewer restrictions.

Ahurei, French Polynesia

One of many first modern-day revivals of the rāhui system in French Polynesia occurred in Ahurei, on the island of Rapa, within the early Eighties. Picture by Dmitry Malov/Alamy Inventory Picture

In 1986, the rāhui was opened briefly with nice success, and native fishers seen a big enhance in fish and lobster numbers—sufficient to persuade them {that a} sustained rāhui would proceed to protect fish numbers, and fish would at all times be accessible within the islands for generations to come back. Though the islanders skilled firsthand the advantages of the rāhui zone, a 2014 Nationwide Geographic Society examine confirmed that there have been twice as many fish within the rāhui as within the open zone.

The Rapa rāhui stays in place at this time, and spearfishing restrictions are lifted briefly simply a few times a 12 months.


The success of the rāhui in Rapa and on different islands, equivalent to Maïao, shortly caught on elsewhere in Polynesia. In Tahiti, a marine rāhui was created in 2014 in Teahupoo within the southwest area of the island. Inside only a few years, researchers from the Middle for Insular Analysis and Environmental Observatory (CRIOBE) in Moorea, French Polynesia, discovered that there was a big enhance in biomass within the rāhui zone—the common fish biomass was eight to 10 instances larger than outdoors the rāhui.

Tamatoa Bambridge is a rāhui specialist and analysis director on the French Nationwide Centre for Scientific Analysis. He additionally led the scientific group monitoring the rāhui at Teahupoo and recollects the rise in biodiversity in 2017 as “unimaginable.” They found fish within the rāhui that have been greater than seven years outdated, attracted by the provision of meals within the zone. Earlier than the rāhui, overfishing meant that fish of that age and measurement have been extremely uncommon.

Immediately, French Polynesia has an estimated 20 or so rāhui on seven islands, and extra are deliberate. Some, like Teahupoo, have seen nice success, although Bambridge is fast to level out that many rāhui within the Pacific fail due to an absence of correct planning on the outset for the neighborhood to resolve on strategies and limits all of them agree on. Some rāhui even end in a notable lower in fish biomass after the rāhui is lifted and fishing resumes: the fish enhance at first, however then they change into overfished.

Teahupoo, French Polynesia

In 2014, a rāhui was created in Teahupoo, in southwestern Tahiti, and depleted fish populations shortly recovered. Picture by Picture Professionals GmbH/Alamy Inventory Picture

So, what does it take to implement a profitable rāhui within the twenty first century? Laure Vaitiare André is a researcher and skilled in marine conservation and spatial planning within the Pacific. She says that involving locals in administration is a key a part of making a rāhui efficient.

In Tautira, Rapa, and Teahupoo, neighborhood members are actively concerned in sustaining the rāhui and implementing the principles. The rāhui administration committee in Tautira, for instance, is made up of 10 folks, together with fishers, native authorities officers, church representatives, and neighborhood members, all of whom work collectively. They maintain conferences each time a problem comes up that requires dialogue; this is perhaps as soon as each few months or twice every week, relying on the problem at hand.

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Retiree Eric Pedupebe grew up in Tautira and is an lively member of the rāhui administration committee. He says that as neighborhood members go about their day, they look ahead to anybody who is perhaps breaking the rāhui guidelines. In the event that they see an infraction, they could speak to the individual and inform them in regards to the rāhui laws or simply let the committee know.

As well as, Pedupebe and a good friend head into the rāhui zone at night time throughout the brand new moon, however he says it may be troublesome to seek out offenders. “There’s no mild on the market, there’s nothing … you actually should know your lagoon.” Pedupebe additionally says this sort of surveillance has limits, as he has no actual energy to cease folks from fishing within the rāhui. It’s one of many points mentioned at committee conferences in an effort to seek out options.

Many rāhui in French Polynesia are additionally actively monitored by scientists. Marguerite Taiarui is a PhD candidate in tropical reef fisheries at CRIOBE and former fisheries supervisor of the Tautira rāhui. She research the organic parameters of sure fish species and shares her outcomes with the fishers and administration committee. With these outcomes and biomass estimates from the Rāhui Middle, the administration committee, managers from the Division of Marine Sources, and the neighborhood finalize a rāhui plan uniquely tailored to Tautira.

Taiarui says that, in the long run, the committee determined to create a rāhui with three zones. The center zone—the “coronary heart”—stays closed, and the opposite two are open by rotation, consistent with ancestral practices.

This sort of hybrid strategy to marine administration, combining native involvement and data with trendy scientific strategies, is more likely to enhance success, in keeping with marine conservation researcher André. “On this method, traditions can reinvent themselves to raised meet the challenges of tomorrow,” she says.


In Tautira, many fishers pray earlier than diving into the ocean; collectively, on their poti marara, or Tahitian fishing boats, they collect, heads bowed, to ask for security and an plentiful catch. Polynesian spirituality and custom are an integral a part of rāhui, and that is the place the strategy stands aside from different conservation strategies, equivalent to regulated fishing zones. Conventional ceremonies, prayers, and tales are completely different, relying on native communities and their cultural beliefs. Bambridge factors out a delusion from the island of Raiatea, the place two associates anger the god of the ocean, Ruahatu, by fishing within the mistaken spot. They broke a rāhui, and Ruahatu, in his vengeance, flooded the island. Tales like this, handed down via generations, are warnings, however additionally they reinforce the respect that Polynesians have for establishments like rāhui.

The village of Tautira, Tahiti

The village of Tautira, Tahiti. Picture by Taerea/Shutterstock

Rāhui in French Polynesia are starting to be acknowledged as a authentic and efficient method to protect coastal ecosystems. The rāhui in Teahupoo has had authorized safety below French Polynesia’s environmental legislation since 2016. And starting in 2017, rāhui have been legally acknowledged as authentic techniques for conservation below the situation that they observe all state legal guidelines and laws. Some rāhui additionally profit from working at the side of official government-regulated fishing zones. The French Polynesian Division of Marine Sources has even built-in rāhui into its work in an effort to stop overfishing and shield sure species.

Heremoana Maamaatuaiahutapu, the minister of tradition, surroundings, and marine sources in French Polynesia, says that options have to be discovered now for points like overfishing, marine air pollution, and local weather change. For island nations like French Polynesia, sustainable options are key. Maamaatuaiahutapu says, “Immediately, it looks like the world normally at all times depends on scientific analysis to seek out options … however we additionally have to ask our elders. The primary Polynesians arrived within the Pacific 4,000 years in the past, and if we’re nonetheless right here at this time, it’s as a result of we knew reside and survive with our personal options.”

Again on the island of Rapa, the place the trendy rāhui started, the rāhui opens briefly yearly. Fishers head to the rāhui zone and are available again with a bounty sufficiently big to feed the entire island, a feat that may be unimaginable on the larger, extra populous islands like Tahiti. The fish, most of them greater than a soccer, are fastidiously laid out on the pier and divided into neat piles: one pile per household on the island. Simply as within the outdated days, the meals is shared equally. Simply as within the outdated days, the rāhui ensures {that a} treasured useful resource is maintained for generations to come back.

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