The Al Gore of Polynesia

On a tiny South Pacific isle, a small-town mayor uses ancient fishing techniques to provide sustainability for his family—and a detailed PowerPoint to ensure his traditions never die.

The Al Gore of Polynesia

Everyone on the island of Moorea turned out for the festival. There were French government officials in slacks, American scientists in safari shorts and flip-flops, and an array of locals dressed in their finest Hawaiian prints. The women wore fragrant flowers in their hair and some of the men went shirtless, sporting tribal tattoos and palm skirts. A trio of musicians sang in Tahitian, the tune’s sweet notes mournful despite the rhythm of drums and the plucky ukuleles. Palms swayed overhead, and through them were glimpses of the jagged green fingers of island peaks and the sapphire of Cook’s Bay across the road. And there was food: huge pans of baked plantains and breadfruit, pit-roasted pork belly that melted like butter on the tongue and po’e, a pudding of fruit and bread wrapped in banana leaves and baked in a pit fire.

An aerial view of Cook's Bay on the north shore of Moorea shows the complex structure of reefs and channels, a structure created by the island's abundant corals.
An aerial view of Cook’s Bay on the north shore of Moorea shows the complex structure of reefs and channels, a structure created by the island’s abundant corals.

Moorea is a bewitching volcanic island in French Polynesia rimmed with a turquoise halo of lagoons formed by coral reefs. Draw a line between Australia and South America, and another straight down from Hawaii and you’ll come close to this tiny neighbor of Tahiti, a part of the Society Islands cluster of French Polynesia. The party here was to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Atitia Center and the adjoining Richard B. Gump South Pacific Research Station, a unique pair of facilities devoted to the region’s two most abundant resources: the astounding tropical biodiversity and its rich cultural heritage. The unlikely cross-cultural blend of partygoers crowded together in the shade of palms and a large tent reflected the center’s dual mission.

“You come with me, we catch fish,” Franck Taputuarai said, his eyes wide and his grin gleeful, almost childlike. With one foot in the modern world and another rooted firmly in ancient Polynesian tradition, Taputuarai is a willing ambassador of the often reticent local fishing community. He’s not only passionate about traditional fishing practices, but through his post as mayor of a small island community here, he’s tasked with making sure that fishery persists for future generations. He held his hands apart to indicate the size of the creatures he planned to ensnare the next day, utilizing the efficient fishing techniques developed to a deadly art by his ancestors.

“Many fish. Big fish.”

The local people have good reasons to be wary of outsiders. Throughout history, travelers who stepped on the shores of Moorea have acted as colonizers, tourists and carbon emitters, in each case disrupting the fragile balance of the traditional way of life. Interest in local fishing practices often comes with government-mandated regulations, this despite the fact that the Mooreans have been sustainably managing their resources for the last several millennia just fine. But Taputuarai is eager to share the methods of fishing families.

Within moments of a handshake with Taputuarai our itinerary was set: “We meet tomorrow,” he began. “I show my presentation, you come to my house, we eat, we go fishing, you sleep by me…not in the same bed, but in my house…we wake up early and sell the fish, then you eat with my family again. Is good?”

“Yes,” a nod and a grin in reply. “Is good.”

Moorea is a rare refuge. With its reefs diverse and its corals resilient, the surrounding ecosystem has largely been spared from the devastation faced in other parts of the world due to global warming and other human pressures, including overfishing and coastal development. But Taputuarai, like many of the scientists who study Moorea’s corals, worries this could soon change.

“We’re really in a race against the clock to figure out what we can do to preserve some of these important habitats,” says Rebecca Vega-Thurber, director of the Global Coral Microbiome Project, who studies corals on Moorea’s reefs. From the Gump Station where she conducts her research, she can see the deep cerulean of the open ocean, the foaming of waves on the outer reefs that protect the island from the wild Pacific, and the pale blue lagoon studded with brilliant corals that provide shelter to the abundant fish. All of this structure is built by the corals — tiny animals that form colonies, and whose calcium carbonate skeletons create reefs large enough to sometimes be visible from space.

Rebecca Vega-Thurber of Oregon State University tips over the edge at the start of a research dive off of Moorea.
Rebecca Vega-Thurber of Oregon State University tips over the edge at the start of a research dive off of Moorea.

Vega-Thurber seeks to understand the microbial balance in corals. Like humans and other animals, corals host armies of good and bad bacteria inside them. When that balance tips, corals become diseased, they die and then the reefs disappear. And when the reefs disappear, so do the fish that Taputuarai catches to feed his family.

One phenomenon that can trigger this cycle of destruction is a worldwide coral bleaching event that began this past summer in the Northern Hemisphere where warming weather pushed ocean temperatures to historic highs. Long periods of warming stress the corals and they reject their symbiotic relationship with the algae that feed them. This year’s event has already devastated large swaths of corals in Hawaii and American Samoa. Now, as summer begins in the Southern Hemisphere, it is working its way southward.

Vega-Thurber is amazed by the health of Moorea’s corals and their ability to rebound from storm damage and other pressures, but is concerned about their future.

“Out there in the beautiful reefs that we saw, they have been recovering. This one event might wipe all of that recovery away,” Vega-Thurber says.

Ruth Gates directs the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, where she has witnessed the devastation that bleaching can cause. “In one single temperature related event, we lost eighteen percent of the world’s reefs,” she says, adding that in a second similar occurrence, another eighteen percent was damaged irreparably. She’s nervous that this year’s bleaching could be even worse.

But it’s not just the corals, the fish and other myriad marine creatures that are threatened by bleaching. Gates has figures for the human toll, too: “70 percent of the protein that’s eaten in the Pacific Islands comes from a coral reef.”

Moorean fishermen sell their catch alongside the road near the busy ferry port of Vaiare; what isn't sold will be taken home and shared with friends and family.
Moorean fishermen sell their catch alongside the road near the busy ferry port of Vaiare; what isn’t sold will be taken home and shared with friends and family.

The city hall of Haapiti, a small community on Moorea’s southwestern shore, is a squat, drab concrete building. As he leads us in, Taputuarai explains that his father also served one term as mayor. He proudly notes that he’s on his second.

His title evidently gives Taputuarai access to the city’s laptop projector, and with it he shows an original PowerPoint presentation to anyone who asks, and even some who don’t. He prepared it initially for a conference of Polynesian community leaders in Hawaii, learning English specifically to be able to deliver it without the aid of a translator. “Too slow with a translator,” he says.

Part biography, part philosophy and fishing treatise, Taputuarai narrates in weighted, reverent words with the quality of oral tradition, or even a prayer, albeit one with animated transitions and clipart projected on a bed sheet on the wall behind him. He explains that each of the thirty phases of the moon has a different Tahitian name — his father taught him all of them. During each phase, the fish behave differently as they interact with the tides that surge in and out of his local lagoon through a passageway, a deep canyon through the reef leading to the open sea.

These are lessons handed down through generations. Now they also live on a thumb drive.

The level of detail in Taputuarai’s PowerPoint is granular, so detailed and precise it’s almost baffling that he’s so determined to share it widely. His shtick is reminiscent of Al Gore’s in “An Inconvenient Truth.” “It’s our only home,” Gore says in reference to the planet depicted in the famous Earthrise photo. In many ways, this is exactly what Taputuarai is doing — only, for the Moorean fisherman, the entire world consists of this one small stretch of lagoon.

Fishing in Polynesia isn’t so much an activity as it is a process. Taputuarai begins by checking the moon for the best time to fish for the species he’s after. His father’s wisdom tells him that today the fish will be running for deep water at sunset. He spends the morning stripping bark from young trees in the jungle behind the house where he grew up. He’ll use the strips throughout the day to mend nets, affix them to the reef structure while fishing, and to string the fish together for sale along the roadside the next morning.

To sustain himself throughout the day, he looks no further than the land and lagoon around him. Thirsty? Hack a coconut from a tree his father planted and drink its sweet milk. Hungry? Lunch is rice and fresh reef fish. But the fish here are more than protein; they’re also currency. (The boat mechanic who appears on short notice to repair Taputuarai’s motor will take his payment in a share of the catch.)

An American researcher from the Global Coral Microbiome Project conducts a snorkel survey of one of Moorea's lagoons to assess the island's coral health.
An American researcher from the Global Coral Microbiome Project conducts a snorkel survey of one of Moorea’s lagoons to assess the island’s coral health.

Taputuarai anchors on the edge of the lagoon near a deep channel through the reef that leads to the open sea. He spends hours unloading nets from the boat, arranging them in a giant ‘v’ at the edge of this channel to intercept the fish on their daily run toward the deep ocean. He patrols the edges of the net to chase off sharks and eels that could easily slice the net to ribbon and also to remove the smaller fish that become entangled, waiting patiently for the big fish to arrive as he has promised.

And then, just as the sun slips closer to the sea, the fish appear. Brilliant blue and red parrotfish, black unicorn fish with their sharp tail spines, spotted groupers, yellow goatfish, striped butterfly fish — a kaleidoscope of colors converging at the nets’ narrow point, all flowing into the channel like Manhattan commuters heading for the subway. Taputuarai dives down and grabs them as they cluster at the point of the net, tossing them up into a floating tub tied to his waist. This is physical work. He dumps the heavy tub time and again into the boat and his eight-year-old son sorts fish in the growing darkness.

The beauty and precision of this system is apparent. To witness this river of life appear at the precise time and location and phase of the named moon — as it has for generations — is to grasp the real value of the knowledge his father passed along to him. It also helps observers understand how precarious a tightrope all humans walk.

One coastal development too many, one more pineapple plantation dumping its excess nitrogen fertilizer into the lagoon, one degree of temperature warmer and the corals will bleach on Taputuarai’s reef, the spot he’s been coming to since birth, and the whole system will change. The river will dry up.

What fish aren’t eaten for the evening meal or shared with family are for sale alongside the road before sunrise the following morning. A line with a dozen large specimens costs the equivalent of twenty dollars. They’re so fresh they are typically eaten raw, cubed and doused with coconut milk, mixed with onions, cucumbers and tomatoes in poisson cru. Some strips of raw fish are soaked overnight in a fermented seawater stock, a dish called fafarou, off-putting to the uninitiated but a lip-smacking delicacy for Polynesians.

“I have so much knowledge,” Taputuarai says more than once over the course of the day, holding his hands on either side of his head as if it were encased in a swelling halo. He isn’t bragging about his own wisdom, but rather emphasizing the precious commodity with which he’d been entrusted. “From my father. From my grandfather.”

Scientists like Ruth Gates warn of what might be lost as humans force their will upon the Earth’s ecosystems. “Something bad is going to happen on the planet if we don’t stop doing what we’re doing,” she says. “When we lose corals completely from a place, it will be almost impossible to restore that with living reef.”

Taputuarai reminds his listeners why that loss would be such a sizable tragedy, and after a day on the lagoon, it’s unconscionable to think of a world in which Taputuarai’s son can’t pass along the names of the moon to his own children.

Franck Taputuarai's son holds a blue parrotfish as he helps to sort the catch just as his father did as a child.
Franck Taputuarai’s son holds a blue parrotfish as he helps to sort the catch just as his father did as a child.

Still, there is hope. This island’s reefs, like its people, are resilient. There is a striking amount of diversity in the corals here, and diversity is a sign of ecological strength. In diverse systems, when one species is attacked by predators, disease, storms or human activity, another similar but different species can step into its role and hold the habitat together until it can heal. Scientists like Rebecca Vega-Thurber and Ruth Gates come to Moorea to understand that diversity and identify which reefs are the strongest and which are most fragile, which reefs are in the least diverse and in dire need of protections, and which might need human engineered solutions to survive.

While scientists, engineers, governments and consumers all need to step up to address climate change, pollution and the ravages of overconsumption, the weight of responsibility for saving this one lagoon on a tiny island in the vast expanse of the Pacific will ultimately fall to Franck Taputuarai and people like him. Fortunately, he’s well armed with a deep understanding of this place through the knowledge his father has handed down.

“We should never disregard local knowledge,” Gates says of the Mooreans, including Taputuarai. “These are the people who will ultimately be engaged in the solutions.”