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You are here: /main/research/NOWRAMP 2002/journals/forgotten/


Ship Logs

Forgotten Knowledge
Lisianski Island

Written By Carlos Eyles
Photography by Jim Watt
October 1, 2002

School of Nenue, chubs, at Gardner Pinnacle.Cloud islands rest on the eastern horizon. We have shifted spatial realities as pastel sky peels away leaving a cumquat residue on the tips of the island clouds. In the west storm clouds await their orders, standing by with squall and wind. Seas the color of fresh fired steel, are still flat from the doldrums of yesterday, but they ripple with new fate this morning. Lisianski lays low, flat and unobtrusive to the east, its resident petrels beginning their commute to the sea's far reaches. To the north, clouds, like storm troopers muster for attack, there is change in the wind. The sun breaks the horizon setting the troopers ablaze, softening them to butter, and their squalls to mists of pink, feeding the dark sea its light.

"Science," Mark Heckman said earlier today, "is the search for verifiable reality." And in a very real sense, that is precisely what is taking place up here in these remote islands, the scientists are verifying reality. We are documenting the reality in words and photographs and videos, but that doesn't cut any ice when it comes to protecting an area so far removed from the world at large. It is as if we were treasure hunters and have discovered this enormous body of wealth, and now we have to see exactly what that wealth represents. Not so we can spend it but so we can keep it for all of Hawai‘i, perhaps for the entire world, for Yellowfin goatfish at Midway Atoll.such treasures become more valuable the less there are of them. At one time all of the Hawaiian Islands were such treasures. The ancient Hawaiians knew a treasure when they came upon one; they knew how to care for it so that it would remain a treasure for the continual reap of its bounty. In those days, as Dr. Alan Friedlander points out, a young fisherman was required to watch the older fisherman at work and to hold the catch, but he was not allowed to actually fish until he had years of training. He had to know the life history, behavior and ecology of the fishes before he was allowed to catch them. The authority of village elders was respected. They had natural refuges, and management practices based on a kapu system that protected spawning times and areas. However in the last two hundred years the reef fisheries have decreased for several reasons, better fishing gear is the only justifiable one. Mostly we have disregarded the plain fact that we have been abusing the treasure that was bequeathed to us through wasteful fishing practices (mainly over fishing) and habitat destruction. Our Western culture, with its emphasis on freedom of the individual, is attractive and has a major effect in undermining the structure of the old island societies. Rather than obey the customs and regulations, fisherman claim the right to fish as much as they please and anywhere they like. As a result young people now believe it is their birthright to take whatever they can pull up without regard for the needs of future generations. In addition the fishermen tend to target larger fish and after awhile only the small kind are left. In what's left of the fish populations, nearly all the genetic input is from smaller fish, which in turn produce still smaller fish. Eventually the large fish disappear altogether and with them the entire fishery is reduced.

Rapture Reef at French Frigate Shoals.The last of the original treasure resides here in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. We can see for the first time in a hundred years, what the entire treasure looked like before it was destroyed, see its incredible abundance and its extraordinary beauty. Perhaps more importantly, see its balance. The overall predator fish weight in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, not including lagoon areas to make a fair comparison to the Main Hawaiian Islands, is 54% (ulua, sharks, kahala) compared to the Main Hawaiian Islands at 3% predators. Additionally, the overall fish weight (biomass) in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is 260% greater than that of the Main Islands, while the mean weight of the large, or apex predators, is a whopping 570% greater than the Main islands.(3)

No one on this ship, no Hawaiian wants the last of their heritage to be destroyed, for the sea and all its creatures is of Hawai‘i both in spirit and in body, no less nor greater than the islands themselves. How can we keep it as it has always been? How can we learn from what it tells us to better understand what we have lost, and perhaps what we can recapture. The Ancient Hawaiians could tell us if they were here. I wonder if anyone would listen. But the scientists are here, and they try to understand what the Old Hawaiians understood, what we all understand, of some level, that everything is connected, and when you break the threads of one connection it affects the entire treasure. Science in the form of Dr. Alan Friedlander and his team, understand the threads, they see the threads and give them scientific names that sometimes confuse you and me, and I often think they are talking about a different sea, but the experience of this expedition has taught me that we are all speaking of the same sea. The sea that you and I daily dive in, or fish from or surf on and they are making it a verifiable reality for those who don't or can't see it like we do everyday. To do so is to be able to speak of it to those who do not understand the sea as those of us who feel it so deeply in our hearts. It is the only way we can save what we have, and improve what we have damaged. Everyone, from fisherman to politicians needs to know how the ocean works. They need to understand, as the Ancient Hawaiians did, that everything in the sea is related to one another. To take a fish here, is to affect the coral there, to affect the coral there affects the limu (seaweed) which in turn affects the fish that feed on it which affects the fish that feed on those fish. It is the circle of life, of balance and of harmony. If one link is damaged or taken out the thread of connection is broken, and the perfect system begins to come Galapagos sharks at Maro Reef.apart. It can repair itself if left alone, but there is also a point of no return, you take too much, break too many threads and the animals are unable to recover. The black-lipped pearl oysters are a good example of that; they were eliminated from Pearl and Hermes Atoll within a few years. It is happening to the ulua and the sharks in the Main Islands also the big uhu ululi, 'a'awa, even the mu are down. The whole fish stocks of the coral reefs are 20 to 25% of what they were just a hundred years ago. At the present rate there will be little or nothing left for the next generation.

We have an opportunity, certainly our last one, to redeem ourselves and these Islands, but it will take courage to enforce the management of our fisheries. The scientists are doing their part, but it will mean nothing unless we take the information they provide and begin to protect the treasures the Ancient Hawaiians so valued. The time has come for all of us to move from takers to caretakers.


(1) Interview with Alan Friedlander

(2) Charles Birkeland and Alan Friedlander, The Importance of Refuges for Reef Fish Replenishment in Hawai‘i

(3) J. Maragos and D. Gulko (eds) 2002. Coral Reef Ecosystems of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: Interim Results Emphasizing the 2000 Surveys


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