Interviews Document Traditional Fishing Patterns in the Mariana Islands

An important aspect of formulating policies for ecosystem-based management is knowledge of cultural traditions of local fishing communities. Social scientists at PIFSC are working to gain such knowledge across the Pacific Islands Region. Recently, PIFSC researchers interviewed 42 people in Guam and Saipan to learn about traditional fishing patterns in waters within the Mariana Islands, including the Islands Unit of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument. The Islands Unit is situated in the northern part of the archipelago. In early November, 2011, Dawn Kotowicz and Laurie Richmond visited Saipan and collected oral histories from 28 people who either fished in the waters of the Islands Unit or were closely associated with fishing there. Some conversations were with individuals and some with small groups. A few weeks later, Risa Oram and Judy Amesbury conducted additional interviews, including two on Guam and 12 on Saipan, with people who had either fished or conducted scientific research trips there.

Fisherman John Moteisou provided information during oral history interview with Laurie Richmond (center) and Dawn Kotowicz 
Fisherman John Moteisou provided information during oral history interview with Laurie Richmond (center) and Dawn Kotowicz (right).

Researchers interviewed fishermen, scientists, managers, people associated with the Northern Islands Mayors' Office who had spent extended periods of time living on Agrigan (the first island south of the Islands Unit), and several former residents of Asuncion and Anatahan. They also spoke with other people familiar with or connected to the Northern Islands, to provide the perspective of people who value the resources of the Northern Islands but hadn't fished there. Interviewees had travelled to the waters of the Islands Unit for a variety of reasons: fishing commercially; leading charter fishing trips and other non-commercial trips; fishing for food; conducting research; participating in emergency evacuation trips; and transporting supplies between Saipan and the Northern Islands.

Several people told researchers that fish from waters around the northernmost islands are highly valued, not just by fishermen but by also people receiving the catch, because the fish are of superior quality. One fisherman reported that when he returned from fishing trips to the Northern Islands, people from Saipan would swarm the dock, "asking what fish they have...they like the fish [from] up there."

Many fishermen said they used fish in their cultural exchanges such as celebrations (for example, a fiesta or wedding), shared fish with family and friends, and ate the fish while in the Northern Islands. For example, there were accounts that in the past one fisherman timed his Northern Islands fishing trips so he could deliver fish for the San Isidro Fiesta held every spring. Several people expressed a sense of place and cultural heritage when talking about the Northern islands. This sentiment extended all the way up to the island of Uracas, whether the person had visited the island or not. Many who had not yet visited the area expressed a desire to see or visit all of the Northern Islands within their lifetime - a man from CNMI said, "That was my goal at least to say that I've stepped on all the islands."

Researchers are compiling the interview data for analysis. Results of the study are being made available for use in formulating regional management plans.