Subsistence Subsiding: Eighty Years of Change in French Polynesia’s Fisheries

Tapatai: Tahitian for “fearless of wind and sea.” So were called the manuoroo, the offshore fishing guild of Tahitians, known for their tenacity when fishing out of double-hulled canoes for albacore tuna (Nordhoff, 141).  Accounts of their fishing techniques were still being written by Euro-American enthnographers as late as the 1930s.  In his “Notes on the off-shore fishing of the Society Islands, ” Charles Nordhoff describes Tahitian offshore fishing on the cusp of modernization, as French Polynesian fishermen began to use motorboats in the 1940s and 50s. (He observed the “last double albacore-canoe … rotting in the sun.”)  Since Nordhoff’s “Notes,” the fisheries have changed dramatically, as subsistence fishing has become less of an integral part of daily French Polynesian life.  Eighty years later, fishing on Tahiti, Fakarava, and Nuku Hiva can provide important case studies to juxtapose the present with the historic subsistence fishing lifestyle.

Keitapu Maamaiahutapu, who was Manager of Fisheries for French Polynesia in 2006 and 2007, believes that the biggest shift from subsistence to commercial fishing happened on Tahiti.  He estimates that half of Tahiti’s fishermen switched from fishing to feed themselves and their families to fishing for commercial markets in the last half century.  The shift was relatively recent, corroborates Timiona Tumoana, captain of the Tahiti-based longlining vessel Meherio VI. The tuna longlining industry, Tahiti’s only commercial fishery, only really began in 1978, as global demand for tuna went up. Poti mara’a, fast speedboats driven from the front so the driver could simultaneously drive and harpoon his catch, were jury-rigged with tuna longlining gear for the first few years until big fishing ships came to Tahiti in the 1980s.  Since the influx of larger longlining ships, fishing out of Tahiti has been on an industrial scale.

Longlining is the only developed pelagic fishery in French Polynesia, landing between four thousand and six thousand tons of fish per year (Maamaiahutapu). Only about six hundred tons of tuna are exported each year, mainly to Japan and Hawai’i (Maamaiahutapu, Tumoana).  The rest stays in Tahiti.

There are a hundred or so longlining vessels based in Tahiti’s Port de Peche (fishing port), that fish between the Society and Marquesas island groups. The longliners target albacore, bigeye, and yellowfin tuna, although they may also fish for swordfish, sailfish, skipjack, and mahi mahi. Of the hundred or so longlining boats though, only fifty or sixty of them are operating, as there is waning interest in fishing due to regulations and the knowledge of them required to captain a fishing boat (Maamaiahutapu).  Despite a diminishing fishing force, Maamaiahutapu believes that French Polynesia has one of the highest consumptions of fish per capita in the world.  Between pelagic, coastal and lagoon fisheries, eight thousand to ten thousand tons of fish are caught commercially in French Polynesia each year. With a population of 260,000, per person consumption is between 61.5 and 77 pounds of fish per year, or about a sixth of a pound of fish per day, not including fishing for subsistence. The majority of tuna caught in French Polynesian waters reaches residents through markets, restaurants, and even schools (Maamaiahutapu).

When one looks at the food imported to the Tuamotu archipelago or to the Marquesas islands, it becomes clear that the fish caught by Tahitian boats generally stays in Tahiti.  However, virtually all of the smaller reef fish in the fish markets in Papeete are shipped from the Tuamotus.  In fact, both Maamaiahutapu and the former mayor of Fakarava atoll describe people shipping or traveling with coolers of fish from outer island groups to family members in Tahiti.  With modern transportation, the fish caught in certain locales is no longer necessarily eaten by the people who live there, which complicates the definition of “subsistence” in Polynesia.  Do Tahitians eating fish caught by their cousins in Fakarava have a partly subsistence lifestyle? Can subsistence be partial?  To understand subsistence fishing and the place of fish in the contemporary Polynesian diet, the Tuamotu and Marquesan islands must be considered.

FIgure 1

Fakarava atoll boasts the second largest lagoon of the Tuamotu islands: from the middle, it is impossible to see land in every direction, despite the fact that a coral atoll encircles the lagoon.  During the hundreds of years before European contact, a small population of one to two hundred people would alternate seasonally between four different parts of the lagoon to fish for subsistence.  (Figure 1)  In this Rahui system, fishing grounds would only be harvested for three months at a time, and the cycling would ensure that no part of the lagoon was overfished (Niva).  When European missionaries established the first permanent village, Rotoava, on the southern side of the atoll in an attempt to centralize the native population, fishermen continued to fish using the Rahui model, only returning to the village on weekends (Niva).  In the 1940s and 50s, motorboats shortened travel time to fishing grounds, although the Rahui system was still adhered to.  In fact, the Rahui system was still in use in 1995 when workers from France’s discontinued nuclear testing program returned to their home islands, increasing Fakarava’s population by the hundreds. This generation had grown up in Papeete, had families to feed, and little respect for a system whose importance was never instilled in them. With a population of around eight hundred residents fishing within the lagoon, and Tahitian longliners nearly depleting the fish populations in the waters surrounding Fakarava, the island had to abandon Rahui and develop a new management plan to regulate the lagoon fisheries and curb Papeete’s fishing fleet.

Figure 2

Now, Fakarava has the status of a UNESCO Biosphere, and a new management plan. (Figure 2)  The lagoon is divided into static zones that are reserved for fishing, tourist activities, or conservation.  While this has succeeded in protecting the atoll from overfishing by Tahitian fishing boats, it has also discouraged local fishing considerably (Vanaa).  The rigidity of the zones poses problems too.  The absence of cycles not only puts pressure on certain parts of the lagoon more than others, but it may be leaving the people of Fakarava with the short end of the stick: the “zone of activity,” which includes the waters around Rotoava, has the highest levels of Ciguaterra disease in the entire lagoon (Vanaa).

Although all reef fish in Tahitian markets are caught in the Tuamotus, Fakarava catches less than a hundred tons of fish a year (Chauvet, Burns). Tuhoe Tekurio, the former mayor of Fakarava, says tourism, copra (coconut oil production), and fishing used to be the main sources of income on the atoll.  Until a couple years ago, commercial fishing used to exist, but now there are some who say that fishermen are still making a living off of fishing by selling it locally (Vanaa, anonymous), and those who say no one fishes commercially anymore (Tekurio, Burns). Freddy Burns, a member of Rotoava’s town council, says that no one on the atoll has only one vocation: if you are a fishermen, chances are you do a couple other jobs too.

The citizens of Fakarava are no longer dependent on fish as their only protein source: frozen chicken and corned beef are the atoll’s two main imports (Burns).  Both are imported to vary the diets of Fakarava’s residents.  Marguerite Vanaa, who works in Fakarava’s UNESCO Biosphere office, says that everyone on Fakarava still eats fish, just less of it.  The fishing that is done is more for fun, says Tekurio, though the catch is still eaten.  “Fakarava is a community of brothers and sisters,” Freddy Burns says, and they try to share resources: families and friends often go out together to fish for the day out of small motorboats.  The only methods of fishing on Fakarava seem to be spearfishing on coral reefs, and trolling out of motor boats in deeper lagoon waters or outside the atoll in open waters, depending on the species of fish desired.  In general, fishing on Fakarava is no longer a matter of food security – that is, as long as France continues to send frozen chicken, corned beef, and diesel fuel.

Nuku Hiva, the largest of the Marquesan islands in terms of population, has a more visible fishing fleet than Fakarava, though only just.  Five or six fishing boats no longer than twenty-five feet are docked at the Taiohae town pier.  Deborah Kimitete, the assistant mayor of Taiohae, says because of the limited space in the harbor, these fishing boats are Taiohae’s fishing fleet.  Nuku Hiva does not ship any significant amount of fish to Tahiti: their main exports are limes, mangos, and pomplamoose (Burns).

The five or six fishermen of Taiohae provide fish for the town’s 1900 residents, or at least those who come down to the docks to buy it from the fishermen off the cutting tables.  Tony Yao, the self-proclaimed “Big” fisherman of Nuku Hiva, used to fish in Papeete, but upon moving to Nuku Hiva, has found his niche in Taiohae.  He says of Papeete: “the market is not as good as here.  It’s really hard to catch fish, and really hard to sell.”  He goes fishing every couple days, motoring three hours south of Taiohae into open waters, where he and another fisherman troll for tuna, mahi mahi, wahu, and bottom fish like red snappers.  He returns the next morning to clean and bag the fish on the tables near the fishing pier, where people come to pick up pre-cut pieces or make orders.  On a good day, he’ll catch five hundred kilograms of fish, all of which will be gone by five o’clock, guaranteed.  The fish market, and therefore fish consumption in Taiohae, is on a first-come first-served basis.  Nuku Hivans who wish to eat fish can catch their own or find it fresh on the docks, though frozen chicken and corned beef are readily available in local convenience stores and are popular alternatives to a fish-heavy diet.

In Nuku Hiva, the traditional fishing boat is an outrigger canoe.  However, outriggers that were in use only two or three years ago on the north side of the island have been replaced by motorboats.  Across Tahiti, Fakarava, and Nuku Hiva, wind or human-powered fishing vessels have been replaced by those with diesel inboard and outboard motors.  Fuel is subsidized by the government for fishermen in Nuku Hiva (Yao). As the Polynesian fishing industry has modernized over the past seventy or so years, it has become increasing dependent upon fossil fuels for powering fishing boats, shipping catches between islands, and for foreign exportation.  With a population spread across one hundred and twelve islands and reliant upon imported oil and food, fishing independent of imports and exports can play an important role on Polynesian islands in ensuring reliable food resources for future generations.  As the fishing fleet stands now, however, fish catch and consumption would crash upon the halt of oil importation to French Polynesia.

Interest in fishing seems to be waning in younger generations on Tahiti, Fakarava, and Nuku Hiva.  The fishermen in Tahiti’s Port de Peche and on the docks in Fakarava and Nuku Hiva were all older than thirty, and have been fishing for decades.  Youth that wish to pursue higher education, or sometimes just high school, must move to Papeete, and once there, they often stay there or move on to school in France or elsewhere abroad.  Officials in the City Halls of all three islands lamented the draining of the younger generation to Tahiti (Burns, Kimitete, Buteau). Fishing as a vocation may be becoming less relevant to French Polynesian daily life.

Coupled with a dwindling interest in fishing is a decreasing consumption of fish as well: with imported chicken, corned beef, and local pork production, fish is no longer the fundamental source of protein to island nations (Burns, Bowermaster).  The younger generation, especially, prefer a varied diet to a fish-heavy diet (Vanaa).  Regardless of personal preferences, seafood in general has become more dangerous to eat: Keitapu Maamaiahutapu says that people can not eat fish every day now because of high mercury levels in large predatory fish like tuna.  The waters closest to Rotoava on Fakarava are now dangerous to fish in because of increasing levels of Ciguatera found in reef fish, and a local restaurant owner will not serve fish caught in the lagoon to tourists because of this (anonymous).  The coral reef in Anaho Bay in Nuku Hiva, while historically well fished and home to several economically important species, has been abandoned for fear of Ciguatera (Yao, Aswani).  However, it is important to recognize that French Polynesia continues to have one of the highest per capita fish consumption in the world. The localized problems with Ciguatera on Fakarava and Nuku Hiva may not represent all of French Polynesia, though that makes them no less serious and threatening to the communities there.

The biggest threat to both the Polynesian fishing tradition and to the fish they catch are the countries that fish illegally in their waters: Tahiti, Nuku Hiva, and Fakarava are all plagued with Spanish, Japanese, and Korean factory ships fishing illegally within French Polynesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (Timiona, Tekurio, Kimitete).  These ships take economically important species like tuna out of Polynesian waters in massive quantities.  Whereas the largest longliner out of Papeete may spend twelve days at sea, Korean factory ships often spend up to six months fishing in the South Pacific (Timiona).  These small island nations do not have enough resources to protect their waters (Tekurio). For all of French Polynesia’s five million square kilometers of ocean, there are only two French Naval ships patrolling.  If France and French Polynesia do not build up their enforcement infrastructure, there may not be fisheries to support livelihoods and feed French Polynesians in the future.

Looking back one hundred years to the days of fishing out of sailing boats and outrigger canoes provides a stark contrast for the state of fishing today. The dietary, cultural, and economic importance of fishing and fish consumption in French Polynesia is beginning to decline as the country imports more food, education becomes more centralized in Tahiti, and more regulations makes the process of catching and selling fish more bureaucratic.  The dependence on fossil fuels, increasing seafood-related diseases, and illegal fishing by international factory ships pose serious threats to the sustainability of Polynesia’s fishing fleet and tradition.  Still, in the face of all this, fishermen like Tony are making a living and feeding their community and themselves with locally caught, wild fish.  It is still a tradition on Tahiti for people to go fishing every Sunday and Keitapu Maamaiahutapu describes himself as a “Sunday fishermen.”  Fishing will likely never leave the Polynesian culture completely; they are still a nation of islands surrounded by oceanic resources.  But the ways in which fishing manifests itself will change; indeed must change, in response to the current challenges fishermen are up against in French Polynesia.

Erickson Smith, College of the Atlantic

Works Cited
Charles Nordhoff. "Notes on the Off-Shore Fishing of the Society Islands." 
Journal of the Polynesian Society 39.154 (1930): 137-73. The Journal of 
the Polynesian Society. Web. 25 January, 2013.

Claude Chauvet and René Galzin. “The Lagoon Fisheries of French Polynesia.” The ICLARM Quarterly. (1996): 37-41. Web. 25 January, 2013.

Deborah Kimitete, Personal Interview. 15 February, 2013.

Freddy Burns, Rotoava Town Council member, Personal Interview. 5 February, 2013.

Jon Bowermaster. "Fishing in the French Polynesian waters." Gadling. N.p., 27 
May 2011. Web. 24 January, 2013.

Keitapu Maamaiahutapu, former French Polynesia Fisheries Manager, Personal Interview. 1 February, 2013.

Marguerite Vanaa, Fakarava UNESCO Biosphere Office, Personal Interview. 6 February, 2013.

Mohoono Niva, Archaeologist, Personal Interview. 28 February, 2013.

Nicole Bouteau, Deputy-Mayor of Papeete, Tahiti, Personal Interview. 1 February, 2013.

Tuhoe Tekurio, former Mayor of Fakarava, Personal Interview. 6 February, 2013.

Tony Yao, fisherman, Personal Interview. 15 February, 2013.

Timiona Tumoana, longline fisherman, Personal Interview. 31 January, 2013.

How to cite this page: 
Erickson Smith.  “Subsistence Subsiding: Eighty Years of Change in French Polynesia’s Fisheries,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.  2013. Web. [Date accessed]  <html>