Can community-based science save a way of life in Micronesia?

The Ulithi Atoll is a group of islands home to only about 600 people. It is the fourth largest atoll in the world.

More than 600 islands dot the Western Pacific Ocean and form the Federated States of Micronesia. In total, they extend more than 1700 miles from west to east across one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth. UBC graduate student and marine biologist Sara Cannon has spent the last three years working with scientists and communities in one of Micronesia’s remote atolls, trying to help locals protect marine resources within the the islands’ traditions. On March 31, 2015, super typhoon Maysak slammed Ulithi Atoll, potentially threatening a way of life and complicating conservation efforts for the past year.

Micronesia's Ulithi Atoll has been hard hit. What’s the most critical conservation issue facing the islands?

Even though the islands’ population has decreased, the loss of traditional fishing methods has been a major factor in overfishing. New innovations like motor boats, spear guns, and throw nets have changed the way reefs are managed. When people depended on canoes to reach offshore reefs, the reefs would be inaccessible during certain parts of the year, which would give the fish populations a chance to rebound. Now that motor boats have replaced canoes, the cost of gas makes it expensive for people to go out to distant reefs, so there’s a lot more pressure on the reefs that are near inhabited islands. Refrigeration has allowed people to take more fish. New fishing methods are mainly targeting herbivorous fish, which help keep the reefs healthy.

How can marine resources be better managed?

The people of Ulithi have been successfully managing their reefs for centuries and they hold the key to managing them successfully in the future. The communities in Ulithi have been working hard to revive traditional management methods. They’ve closed parts of the inhabited islands to certain types of fishing, and are rotating fishing access to some of the farther reefs. I worked with One People One Reef to communicate scientific findings to the community, and to help train community members to collect their own data, specifically data on landed fish. This will help the Ulithians inform their future management decisions, particularly since things are changing faster than they ever have before. Before the typhoon, it appeared that the management techniques were working — One People One Reef’s data showed that fish were beginning to come back to some of the overfished areas. The typhoon caused significant damage to the reefs, so it remains to be seen how they’ll recover.

In a world increasingly devastated by climate change, what can be done to assist communities whose cultures and livelihoods are tied to the environment?

The people in island nations like the Federated States of Micronesia are suffering the consequences of the actions of industrialized nations. Limiting the impacts of climate change is a global issue, and I think we all can support efforts to reduce emissions and our use of fossil fuels. While the Ulithians don’t have much control over emissions, they do have the power to protect their reefs, which can at least help slow the local impacts of climate change. Reefs protect islands from erosion by breaking up storm waves, which will become more and more critical as storm intensities and frequencies increase. Reefs with healthy fish populations are more resilient to other types of stress as well—like higher than normal sea surface temperatures. Scientists can help by working with communities to provide data that will empower people make informed decisions about their resources.

What are some ways to help victims of the typhoon?

One People One Reef works with programs that bring volunteers to Ulithi to work in the field, and donations can be made through them as well. Just ask for them to be earmarked for typhoon relief efforts.

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

I saw my supervisor, Simon Donner, give a talk in about his work in Kiribati and I was immediately interested in working with him. I interviewed at a few universities in the Unites States, but Simon was the first person I heard mention the importance of working with local communities. Too often, I think, scientists go somewhere and get the data they need and then leave, without sharing their findings with the people who live there or giving back to the local communities. It’s important to me that in my research there be a balance between the data collection and science, and communicating with local communities, involving them in the research, and trying to find ways the work we’re doing can be useful to them.

"Even though the islands’ population has decreased, the loss of traditional fishing methods has been a major factor in overfishing."

Geoff Gilliard