Sometime in the last 20 years, indigenous people in the CNMI came to understand conservation as a bunch of haoles telling us not to fish, not to feed our families, and not to practice our culture. We have been mistaken. Conservation has always been an integral part of our Micronesian culture.
I learned it from my father and I know other people on this island learned it from theirs.
Even so, times have changed. Our island has changed. The definition of conservation has changed along with it.
Old habits and old technologies result in expected outcomes.
1000 years ago when one of our Chamorro (or Carolinian) ancestors went out to catch fish using the technology available to him at the time, he could safely assume that he wasn't depleting his resource. No new technology was going to be introduced to help him catch more fish and no huge influx of off-islanders would be coming to his home anytime soon (at least for another 500 years).
The only things he needed to navigate his world were the stars, the waves, and the wind. He lived the way his grandparents lived and he could expect his grandchildren to live the same way.
However, that was 1000 years ago. Times have changed. We now have more people and new technologies.
When people use old habits combined with new technologies, unexpected outcomes occur.
Fish & Wildlife admits that SCUBA spearfishing nearly decimated our Napoleon Wrasse population. In the 1990's monofilament gill nets wiped out the turtle population in our lagoon.
When these new technologies were introduced, they weren't introduced with the intent of destroying our natural resources. We just wanted to catch more fish, feed our families, and practice our culture.
Even so, old habits (catching as much as you can to share with family and friends) combined with new technologies (diving deeper and longer with SCUBA and better nets) led to a decline in the resource (an unexpected outcome).
Fortunately the CNMI was able to identify both of these new technologies as destructive. Both technologies have since been banned.
Culture and Conservation are integrally linked.
One day when my parents were still married, my father shot a Mariana Mallard on our family property. He ate it.
A few days later my mother was visiting with an American wildlife biologist working on Saipan. Inside his office was a picture of a similar mallard and my mother told the biologist that her husband had just shot and eaten a bird just like the one in the picture.
The biologist replied, "That was probably the last one."
My father did not purposely eat the last mallard. He was just practicing his culture. If you had asked him about the bird on the day he shot it, he would probably have told you that he knew where to find more.
I don't recount that story to try to paint my father in a negative light; I just use it to highlight my point. He had spent his whole life shooting and eating that bird and probably expected his children to spend their whole lives shooting and eating that bird.
He was only feeding his family. He was practicing his culture.
However, old habits (hunting every bird you see) combined with new technologies (more people with better rifles than centuries past) led to extinction (the shelling of Saipan during World War II didn't help either).
Am I less Chamorro because I will never see a Mariana mallard? Am I less Chamorro because I will never taste one? And is Saipan less Saipan because we no longer have bats, barely any coconut crabs, and fewer turtles and reef fish?
If eating certain foods is part of our culture, then what does it say about our culture when we allow that food to go extinct? Will our culture go extinct along with the resource?
We are the people of the land and these islands define who we are as a people. It is the responsibility of every indigenous person to ensure that these islands are passed down to the next generation in the same condition in which they were passed down to us.
I take that promise seriously. This is how I practice my culture.
In the upcoming weeks a new project to create “a National Park of the Sea” will be introduced to the people of the CNMI. Some people know about it. Some people only think they know about it. Some support it; others do not.
Undoubtedly there will be a lot of discussion about this project. I suspect there will be presentations and public hearings. There will also be rumors and lies.
I ask that everyone educate themselves about this issue before forming an opinion.
As for me, I support this project.
If the Commonwealth takes the leadership to make this project happen, the CNMI would gain more control over our waters, our economy would benefit greatly, we could create local jobs, we would keep illegal foreign fishing boats from other countries from taking our fish, and still allow indigenous fishermen to fish for generations to come.
More importantly, our children will be able to practice their culture the way we practice ours.
This is the version that was published in the newspapers. This is my big announcement.