That same week I spent hanging out with the fishes under Swell, I watched locals return day after day to fish the same spot in the reef. I could see them hauling up Napoleon wrasses. This great wrasse is an instrumental reef species, which can grow to nearly 400 lbs! One of the old men in the village explained to me that the fishermen sell the fish to the passing cargo ships for the equivalent of 1 dollar a pound. The ships then resell them in Tahiti to restaurants for triple that or more–as there are relatively no Napoleon wrasses left in the Society Islands, they’ve been almost completely fished out. This contributes to the out of control population of ‘crown of thorns’, a starfish-like organism that feeds on live coral. The Napoleon wrasse is one of its few predators.
So on the fourth consecutive day of Napoleon massacring, my curiosity got the best of me and I went to talk to the fishermen. It was a father and son, obviously fishing for a little food and money their family. How could I possibly tell them they shouldn’t take so many of these fish…How could I say anything, having lived a life of so many blessings. How could I explain that the Napoleons are
excruciatingly sensitive to overfishing, and that it was likely that they could kill off their island’s population in just a few seasons of this kind of relentless killing…? I couldn’t. They wrestled three up from the bottom as I drifted beside their boat. They proudly lifted the floorboards to show me the stock of 6 or 7 others they had caught before I arrived. One was not even a foot long.
I gently posed the question, “Would it be good to leave some that will continue to reproduce?”
“It’s ok.” The older man said. “There are SO many,”
…so many that it didn’t matter… “Would it matter to their grandchildren?” I wondered.
As the day went on, I tried to get the Napoleon wrasse off my mind, but I couldn’t. The megafauna of an ecosystem are historically always the first to take the brunt of the human hunt. And if a species isn’t prone to being hunted for something to eat or sell, it falls victim to the next wrung of human negligence–habitat loss. If it isn’t edible or valuable, then bulldoze it’s home, poison its waters, because it isn’t useful anyway…It was this kind of thinking that got us where we are today, on the brink of species extinctions in every habitat the world over.
I’d seen the same scene–island after island, port after port. But for some reason this particular island’s situation brought everything into painful perspective. It historically supported a small enough population of humans, as to be able to feed the population without depleting the fisheries and was remote enough that selling fish to other regions wasn’t possible. But like the world over, once an area had depleted its resources, populations look to neighboring areas: Tahiti now looks to the Tuamotus to supply much of its fish. But will the Puamotu people realize before they’ve taken too much? How long before their islands were as fish-depleted as Tahiti? It seems like a horrible broken record I’ve witnessed playing over and over all over the world in varied environmental scenarios. Each comes with its own mixed bag of political, cultural, and economic differences, but at the core they all seem eerily similar…And with the way the world works and basic human nature, we still seem far from where we need to be to collaborate and produce long-term, sustainable solutions to these problems!
That night I sat up on the bow of Swell. Looking up at the wide atoll sky, I suddenly started to cry. My tears came first for the napoleon fish. And then for the other reef fish that would be sure to follow. And then I cried for the next generations, who might only see a Napoleon wrasse in a photo…Tears came rushing out for the children, not only here on this tiny speck of island, but also for all the world’s children…what kind of world will be left for them? And surely they will ask us why we didn’t take better care of the Planet…The tears snowballed into sobs…and I cried on into the night, because the Earth is slowly dying: its biological richness depleting, its rivers and oceans and skies choked with our waste, its wildness tamed by bulldozers and plows…And still, the majority of the humans are either ambivalent, feel too powerless to do anything, or lack education. And individually, most of us are just doing our best to get by everyday…so who’s really at fault?
The tears eventually subsided, but one thought stuck with me: No matter how humans came to control this noble planet, I am certain we have greatly misinterpreted our role as Earth’s most ‘intelligent’ beings, tragically overlooking our duty to be stewards rather than looters, of this unfathomably awesome orb of life.