Island communities around the world have strong ties to the ocean. The seas connect people to families and neighbors, provide sustenance, drive economies, and inspire art and cultural values.
Historically, island communities have harvested seafood from a bountiful ocean. However, these peoples face new challenges as unsustainable human activities worldwide take a toll on both ocean health and fish stocks. For example, the percentage of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels tripled between 1974 and 2015.1 Marine debris pollutes massive areas, and carbon dioxide emissions are making the world’s waters warmer and more acidic.2 Populations of some top predatory fish species have declined by more than 90 percent from historic levels.3
Today, island communities, especially those in the Pacific Ocean, are combining traditional knowledge with science to develop innovative strategies to protect the ocean while bolstering local livelihoods and maintaining age-old practices.
Traditional knowledge and practices passed down through the generations increasingly inform modern marine management decisions as a complement to scientific data and recommendations.
Several islands and cultures across the Pacific share a conservation concept that calls for placing certain areas under protection and restricts how they can be used. This sometimes centuries-old approach is known by different names and cultural expressions. In Palau, it is called bul, while in Polynesian cultures it is called rahui or lahui. Elsewhere, the practice goes by other traditional words, such as tapu, tabu, tambu, mo, meshung, or sil.
These protections can be set in place permanently or for a defined period to allow an ecosystem to recover. They can be imposed in areas that hold sacred meaning or for other culturally important reasons, or in areas that have shown declines in health attributed to human activity.
The bul or rahui, therefore, is very similar to the modern idea of the marine protected area (MPA), a clearly defined geographical space that is recognized, dedicated, and managed—through legal or other effective means—to achieve the long-term conservation of nature.4 Leaders at the local and national levels have taken somewhat different but conceptually similar approaches to putting these areas in place. For example:
As part of its work to establish a network of large-scale MPAs, the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project brings together geographically and culturally diverse artists, educators, fishers, former government officials, and traditional voyagers with a shared interest in protecting the unique identities of their Pacific island communities. Together, this group is known as the Island Voices.
The members of this group advise Ocean Legacy in its efforts to work with small island communities seeking to create MPAs. Island Voices ambassadors hail from Palau, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Easter Island. The group focuses on collaborative efforts to maintain healthy oceans and facilitate lasting connections and learning exchanges.
The ocean belongs to all, and people around the world must work to protect it for future generations. For centuries, traditional island communities have developed simple but effective means to maintain and rebuild ocean health by establishing culturally significant protected areas. People elsewhere can learn from their experience and work in culturally appropriate ways—bolstered by well-established science—to establish large, fully protected MPAs. These areas can deliver tangible conservation benefits, secure long-term economic growth for local economies, aid the recovery of neighboring fisheries that benefit from the spillover effect, and uphold unique and diverse cultural traditions that are intrinsically connected to the sea.6