Rangiroa:  Maritime Culture

Describing Rangiroa in a Jean-Michel Cousteau video on sharks, the narrator says, “Everything here depends on the sea; from the school bus, which is a boat, to the economy. Rangiroa and the Tuamotu Islands supply over half the fish marketed in all of French Polynesia, so their future is determined by fishing” (KQED and Ocean Futures Society 2006). Through the communal traps of Rangiroa’s lagoon and the mother-of-pearl and black pearl market, to the recent development of a marine resources management group, the idea of communities living on and using the ocean together is imbedded in Rangiroa’s maritime history and culture.

Oysters, the source of pearls and mother of pearl, have been exploited in the lagoons of the Tuamotus for generations and can provide an example of how the French presence in Polynesia has changed the maritime culture. Mother of pearl has been used in Tahiti for years, as it was observed in pendants, tools, and fish hooks by eighteenth-century explorers (Rapaport, 39)  It wasn’t until after the French Protectorate was established in 1842, however, that mother of pearl became widely exported. Moshe Rapaport, the author of a 1995 paper “Oysterlust: Islanders, Entrepreneurs, and Colonial Policy over Tuamotu Lagoons,” wrote “the Tuamotuans were themselves caught up in the pearl fever. Diving in up to 20 metres of water, an islander could obtain 10 to 20 kilograms of shell per day, and occasionally a valuable pearl. Soon there was an influx of ready credit, tinned food, expensive clothing, cigarettes, and other merchandise” (Rapaport, 40-1). Thus, oysters became a large part of the Tuamotuan economy and helped to bring European goods to the atolls. However, this level of oyster harvesting was not sustainable. Oyster stocks quickly declined, leading the French government to institute comprehensive regulations in 1874. These regulations created three classifications of lagoons—where diving was prohibited, restricted, or allowed—and the classification of each atoll was evaluated each year based on the number of oysters in the lagoons. Additionally these regulations created minimum standards for shell weight (Rapaport, 41-2).

The French government, in addition to regulating the harvesting of oysters, also regulated who had the right to access the Tuamotu lagoons. The French Code Civil of 1866 made all waterways in French Polynesia public domain and under the control of the colonial administration, and a second decree in 1890 had the effect of allowing all French citizens access to pearl oysters (Rapaport, 42). In a petition to repeal this decree, a group of Tuamotuans who were living in Tahiti wrote:

We, Tuamotuans resident in Tahiti, demand that our lagoons be left for ourselves and that, as in the past, we are considered owners [of the lagoons]; that the law of 1842, which declares the people owners of their lagoons and all that is found inside, be maintained... [W]e ask you to repeal the [public domain] decree of May 31, 1890 (Rapaport, 44).

This petition demonstrates the tensions between the residents of the Tuamotus and the French government, each wanting the control of and the economic benefit from the pearl industry.

In 1899, these protests resulted in the abolition of General Council representation of all archipelagos, including the Tuamotus (Rapaport, 45). Additionally, there was continued conflict during this period over the use of dive machines versus free diving, with dive machines repeatedly being prohibited and then reinstated. A 1925 petition from 54 Puamotu free divers to the governor read:

You have authorised strangers to take our pearl shell from under our eyes while we are prohibited to free-dive. We are opposed; we have seized the diving machines, those engines, which endanger the lagoons. We have been subjected, thanks to your intimidation, to those who take hold of resources, which have been left to us by our ancestors. And now again you let these strangers take, from under our eyes, our fortune, the bread of our families (Rapaport, 47).

The concern was not only the environmental harm done my the diving machines, but also goes back to the original conflict over the control of the lagoons: Tuamotuans tended to be free divers while the dive machines were typically operated by outsiders.

Changes in the mother of pearl industry were seen after WWII, when the French government gave their territories more individual freedom, giving Tahitian politicians control over the issue of the public domain of the lagoons (Rapaport, 47). By 1952, only four lagoons continued to have significant production and oysters in the others were near extinction, if not completely gone. In the 1960s, the switch was made from collecting wild oysters to pearl farming (Rapaport, 48), which proved profitable and led to a return migration from Tahiti and other islands back to the Tuamotus, as well as an influx of new immigrants from France and China (Rapaport, 49). Today, Gauguin’s Pearl, located in Rangiroa, is one of the largest pearl farms in Polynesia, owning 400 hectares of the lagoon (http://www.gauguinspearl.pf/en/La-Ferme.html).

Fish are also an important resource in the lagoon.  Fish traps (corrals or “parks,” as they are called in French Polynesia), are responsible for a large part of the lagoon fish catch in the Tuamotus. Commercial traps account for 90% of the lagoon fish sent to Papeete to be sold in the markets there. Parks are scattered around the archipelago in channels between motus, segmented islands on the perimeter of the lagoon, and in the shallow edges of the lagoon (Service de la Peche, 2006). In 1985 there were between five and fifteen traps surrounding Rangiroa (Grand 1985, 498). Several remain today—some in use, some left to be slowly destroyed by the tide.

Fish traps in Rangiroa have been documented in detail regarding both form and function. They are used to herd fish into an enclosed area for safekeeping until they are needed, when it is easy to reach in and catch them in a basket (BBC). Parks are located in strategic positions which use currents and submarine topography to direct fish into the reserves (Grand 1985, 497). Desired fish species and their natural distribution in the lagoon are considered when choosing a site for a corral (Grand 1985, 497). Designs of the parks vary, but all have a basic structure of three parts: the funnel-shaped fence, called the rauroa, angling to a narrow passage into the next section; the ava, a large, circular, nearly enclosed compartment that leads to the last section; and the tipau, which is the smallest area and in which the desired fish are kept (Grand 1985, 497). One such basic structure was observed in a park in Rangiroa and sketched above.

Traditionally, traps were made from local materials such as corals and volcanic stones (Grand 1985, 497). In the last 40 years, though, the structures are increasingly made of galvanized netting and iron stakes (Service de la Peche, 2006). Despite their strong materials, both 40 years ago and now, the traps’ vulnerable locations amid the currents that bring them fish also expose them to wearing by these same currents, and they typically only last five-to-sixmonths (Grand 1985, 498).

After fish pass through the rauroa into the ava, fisherman must eliminate the undesirable species such as sharks, rays and eels by harpooning (Grant 1985, 497). The desired fish species are shepherded into the tipau where they await their sale to boats traveling to markets in Papeete or consumption by Rangiroans (Grand 1985, 497). Managers of the parks are in conversation with the boat drivers headed to Papeete to determine what species will be purchased and in what quantities, in order to not overharvest (Grand 1985, 497).

Though the structure and function of these fish corrals has remained largely the same over the past 300 years, their communal management structure has changed (BBC). The ownership of the traps has shifted from communities to individuals. This change led to a higher number of traps in the lagoon, with each fisherman wanting his own, but was not accompanied by a decrease in the scale of each trap. Consequently the increased capacity of fish corrals resulted in a sharp decline in lagoon fish populations in the 1990s (Teina Maraeura).

Several alternative fishing methodsare used alongside or instead of the traps described above in the Tuamotus, including portable traps (Dalzell 1996, 407). These are found throughout the Pacific in varying models but in Rangiroa they are constructed out of wire mesh and take a rectangular form (Dalzell 1996, 407). They are used in the lagoon to catch Yellowfin surgeonfish and other similar species (Lieske 2002, 125; Dalzell 1996, 407).  When fish corrals and portable fish traps do not catch enough to support the demand, other techniques are employed. Among them is gill netting, in which fish are trapped in the mesh of a net. Target species for gill netting are parrotfish, surgeonfish, mullets and kingfish (Dalzell 1996, 412; Service de la Peche 2006). Spear fishing and hand-lines, which can be used with one or more hooks, are also commonly practiced in the Tuamotus (Dalzell 1996, 412; Service de la Peche 2006).

In 1984, the Tuamotu Islands provided 71.8% of the fish in the Papeete market, which translates to 1002.6 tons of the 2133.4 tons of fish sent there from outer islands (Grand 1985, 496). Most of that catch comes from pelagic fishing vessels from Tahiti that travel to the Tuamotus to fish off the coasts. Thus, Rangiroa, the largest atoll of the chain, contributed only 57 tons of that load (Grand 1985, 497). In 1996, 40% of the fish sold in Tahiti commercially came from the reefs of the Tuamotus (Dalzell 1996, 412). A vast majority, 90%, of that catch came from the fish traps that are so distinctive in the islands (Dalzell 1996, 412). Currently, the Tuamotu Archipelago is still the dominant source of fish in French Polynesia contributing 642 of the 832 tons imported from the outer islands to Tahiti (Maamaatuaiahutapu 2011, 32). However, Rangiroa itself contributes little to the Papeete market now because of the drastic decline in the lagoon fish population in the 1990’s resulting from overfishing. The Tuamotus have the capacity to provide fish on a larger scale than surrounding islands because, with the more mechanized Tahitian fishery operations fishing Tuamotuan waters, they are the exception to the rule of small scale fisheries in Polynesia (Dalzell 1996, 430; Tetua, 2011).

Rangiroa has seen changes in fishing practices and fish communities over time corresponding to these statistics. A group of scientists, including Terry Lison de Loma, published a 2009 paper in Aquatic Living Resources entitled “Long-term spatiotemporal variations in coral-reef fish communitystructure and fishing at a South Pacific atoll.” They documented the effects of changing fish practices on fish populations on Tikehau atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago. Overall, they found a shift from commercial fish species to smaller species, with the largest drop being seen near villages. They attribute this decline to changing fishing practices. Over the sixteen-year period of their study (1987-2003) they noticed a change from “a sustainable fishery using traditional fish traps to an unbalanced, species-threatening, selective fishery,” due to an increase in hand lining and spear fishing. They also noted that this shift in fishing practices is not limited to Tikehau atoll, but can be seen on other atolls in the Tuamotus as well. They conclude: “This study underlines the need for management and for the implementation of marine protected areas (including no-take zones) in order to protect the coral reef ecosystem and favor sustainable fisheries at Tikehau atoll” (Lison de Loma, 2009).

Fishermen on Rangiroa have noticed the decline in fish populations. The president of a local fisherman's association said in an interview with Jean-Michel Cousteau:

Now the fish are disappearing inside the lagoon, too, and they’ve taken a hit at sea. A few years ago, I’d catch 20 to 30 fish a day. Now I have a hard time getting 10 a day. And tuna, we don’t even see tuna anymore because of long liners. The number of boats is growing like seaweed. I think the government has to regulate both catch limit and size for each boat. We can’t even catch tuna to feed ourselves anymore  (KQED and Ocean Futures Society 2006).

The decline in tuna populations has become so great that Rangiroa has started to import tuna in order to meet local demand (KQED and Ocean Futures Society 2006). Additionally, the loss of predators such as tuna and jacks has lead to a boom in squid populations, changing the ecological balance. The narrator of the program says “for the people of Rangiroa, it’s the end of an era. While many of the Polynesian ways and traditions live on, they cannot replace what the outside world has taken from these waters. The absence of large fish, such as jacks and tuna, due to overfishing, has already upset the balance in the sea. And the effects are becoming increasingly noticed on land, as the local people are forced to turn to other sea life, such as squid, to have any kind of economic future" (KQED and Ocean Futures Society 2006).

Some management of fisheries has occurred. For example the president of the fisherman’s association said, “We used to catch everything, but now there’s a size limit of 10 or 12 inches" (KQED and Ocean Futures Society 2006). Additionally, a person can be imprisoned if they are caught exporting lobster during the off-season. There are also some forms of natural management, driven by historical practice and current demand. For example, locals in the Tuamotus do not fish sharks. This is due to the fact that there is not a market for sharks in the Tuamotus. Even if a shark is accidentally entrapped in a fish trap, it is released (KQED and Ocean Futures Society 2006). However, tuna boats do come in and take sharks for their fins and the effect of this practice has not yet been determined (KQED and Ocean Futures Society 2006).

Similar to the community-managed fish corrals of Rangiroa of the past, Rangiroa has established a marine management committee, called the Commission Locale de L’Espace Maritime (CLEM), to guard the interests and resources of Rangiroa. Established in 2004 by the president of Polynesia, the management plan encompasses surrounding atolls Mataiva and Tikehau but is centered in Rangiroa (Arrêté No. 254 2004, 139). The CLEM regulation area encompasses the whole lagoon as well as the near coast from the beach to one kilometer off the shore (Arrêté No. 254 2004, 139). The members of CLEM represent the various locations, industries and government agencies that have a stake in the marine resources. These stakeholders include the mayors of the three atolls, directors of health, heads of pearl farming, education and tourism services, representatives from hotels, schools, environmental protection associations and fishermen, among others (Arrêté No. 254 2004, 139). The members hold meetings in Rangiroa or in Papeete (Arrêté No. 254 2004, 140).

In 2004, the management plan had yet to be elaborated on but the intention was clear: “to assure the consultation between the population, the different socio-economic sectors of the community, the technical services concerned and the study manager” (Arrêté No. 254 2004, 139). The purpose of the CLEM, as is made evident through the goals and involved members listed in the establishment document, is to collaborate in management of the marine resources in order to better provide for the community as a whole.

Despite these intentions, nearly seven years later the CLEM finds its goals unaccomplished. It is paralyzed between the desires of Rangiroans to protect their fish stocks and the unaccommodating territory-wide regulations of the French government. The municipality of Rangiroa would like to respond to their population’s requests for action but they say that working with the French government will likely be a slow process (Tetua, 2011).

In the face of stagnate bureaucracy, some Rangiroans have taken conservation into their own hands. An unofficial rahui, or reserve, has been outlined on the west side of the lagoon that is recognized by those who live and fish there but is not written in law. A line that runs north-south across the lagoon defines the space, about a fifth of the lagoon, in which it is considered forbidden to fish. According to the mayor’s office, this informal rahui has the capacity to be more effective than any steps taken by the CLEM (Assistant Mayor).

Inhabitants of Rangiroa interact with the sea in varying forms, and the resulting maritime culture of the atoll is robust. It is this way across the Tuamotus and the rest of Polynesia because “fishes are one of the very few resources that offer any commercial potential in the Polynesian atolls, and reef and lagoon fishes are the easiest and most convenient for fishermen to target” (Dalzell 1996, 412). A common thread strung through the history of maritime culture on Rangiroa, and the Tuamotu Islands as a whole, is the process of communal use of the marine environment. As pearl farming, a largely foreign interest, increases it will be interesting to see how the community management and commercial forces interact in the small maritime region of Rangiroa.

Tristan Feldman, Vassar College
Ali Andrews, Middlebury College



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