The Rise of Anaa Atoll

James Laverty explains how fisheries science and fly fishing are benefitting a remote Pacific island community

Some places are simply magical. The Tuamotu Archipelago of French Polynesia, comprising the largest concentration of coral islands in the world, is undoubtedly that. The Parata of Anaa, or the Grey Shark people as they were widely known, ruled the region for hundreds of years — notable warriors then, and still a very proud community now. However, as we discovered in 2015, they desperately needed some help. With a lagoon fishery in decline and a dwindling population, the island was slowly dying. Historically, Pacific Island societies maintained a rich tradition of resource conservation and recognised the importance of the marine environment to their survival. Community-based management actions taken to protect scarce or fragile resources were known as Rãhui, which involved strictly enforced conservation practices, including closed areas or seasons. Unfortunately, this tradition was lost among many islands throughout Polynesia after its annexure by France in the mid-19th century. To compound this, the introduction of new technologies enhanced the capacity to harvest large quantities of marine life. Advances such as boat engines, gill nets, freezers, and improved freight transport between islands, exacerbated the collapse of many fisheries and communities across the Pacific. CORAL TRAPS Winding the clock forward several hundred years, the setting was vastly different when the Fly Odyssey team was invited to Anaa five years ago. With a team of fisheries scientists, we set out to determine if ecotourism and specifically fly fishing could help with the youth retention issue threatening the future of the island (FlyLife #82). Could we find a way of empowering the community to generate employment, and halt a declining population and subsequent loss of their culture? A dwindling community now of only 500, devastating cyclones that wiped out much of the island had also contributed to the collapse of many villages. With children forced to leave the island for secondary schooling, and resources seemingly limited to copra production, many people departed for modernised Tahiti or beyond. Families were being disconnected, and the once-powerful Anaa, while still beautiful in so many ways, was on its knees. With a finite amount of cultivatable land producing coconuts, another resource was needed to support them economically — the ‘kiokio’ or bonefish. Families began increasing the numbers of traditional fish traps, which had been used sustainably for centuries to harvest bonefish and other lagoon species. The coral rock traps were built around critical ocean passes used by schools of spawning bonefish when heading back to the lagoon from the sea. Some large breeding females would invariably be captured in the traps, now also modernised by the use of chicken wire to increase yields. As we soon discovered, the increasing reliance on the harvest of lagoon fisheries to fill the growing void in economic opportunity was likely to be accelerating the decline in marine resources, compounded by the lack of fish conservation knowledge. If fly-fishing ecotourism was going to be used to provide a sustainable source of economic development, it was also equally contingent upon the presence of healthy populations of recreationally important species, such as the bonefish, to work. THE ISLAND INITIATIVE Through the formation of the Island Initiative charity by Mathew McHugh and the late Sir Douglas Myers, funds were raised with additional partner support. This enabled fisheries scientist Alex Filous (see FL#79 and FL#81 for his studies on giant trevally and bonefish biology at Tetiaroa) to embark on the most comprehensive and socially challenging bonefish research project ever conducted. As in many remote island communities, the fisheries harvests at Anaa Atoll were not regulated. Despite finding a magnificent and diverse fishery over numerous visits to this Polynesian paradise, there was no real understanding of bonefish population dynamics. We simply had to understand the fishery before any concepts of ecotourism benefits could be considered. Anecdotally the elders recalled times when schools of spawning bonefish had numbered in their tens of thousands, and they had observed a slow decline. However, the younger generation, still seeing schools of several thousand fish together, believed the fishery was in good health. The average size of bonefish we were catching ranged from 1.5 to 2.5 kg, with some over 4 kg, but one question was apparent: where were all the juvenile bonefish? PLAYING WITH FOOD The challenge ahead to make any notable change on Anaa was significant. Firstly the concept of fly fishing was akin to ‘playing with food.’ Secondly, encouraging the community to consider changing their current bonefish harvesting practices, in a symbiotic way that could provide a pathway for ecotourism, was foreign to them and complex. Immersing himself into the community, Alex lived with head guide Raphael for three years. A community meeting solicited the participation of some of Anaa’s residents, initially supporting research by providing biological samples of harvested bonefish for critical length/weight/age data, and fecundity (egg) counts to understand the sexual maturity stages. Slowly but surely, the project began to evolve. Before fishing one morning, I counted eleven pairs of worn-out flats sneakers that Alex had managed to churn through while fishing the reef edges for bluefin trevally, GTs and Napoleon wrasse. When he wasn’t studying bonefish, he was also fishing for them. Life was pretty good. His Puamotu language developed as quickly as the tan marks on the backs of his calves, enabling him to fully converse with Raphael, the emerging guide team and community. I also witnessed him bite the head off a live milkfish out on the flats one afternoon, and as he proceeded to eat it raw, a glancing wink and smile demonstrated that he had genuinely assimilated into island life! As Alex earned the community’s respect, the doors to his research goals began to open. A significant milestone involved approval to commence tagging and releasing bonefish throughout the lagoon to obtain the growth and movement data needed. Next came an acoustic tagging study, with receivers placed inside the lagoon, ocean passes, and at sea, which provided definitive evidence on real-time seasonal movement of individual fish throughout the year. Alex spent a few hours every week educating the local primary school children on bonefish biology, which was incorporated into their curriculum, setting up a fisheries lab at the school and performing egg counts and length/weight analysis. With support from Fly Odyssey and the Island Initiative, the initial scope of Alex’s research also evolved to include implementation of a community-driven management plan for the fishery, and funding to support diversified artisanal projects on Anaa. RESEARCH RESULTS From 2016 to 2018, some 2,500 bonefish were tagged and released, with 3 to 5 year age classes of fish predominant. Recaptured fish both on fly and in the coral traps provided growth rate and movement information. Male bonefish were sexually mature at three years (fork length 43 cm) and four years of age for females (48 cm), with an estimated 29,000 fish of the 3- to 5-year-old size class present in the atoll. It highlighted the importance of these size classes being allowed to spawn before being caught, while fecundity counts of mega-spawner fish above 3 kg also demonstrated their importance to increasing juvenile bonefish numbers and subsequent spawning capacity of the fishery. Growth rate data available for 308 recaptured bonefish showed fast growth (Figure 1) compared to other Pacific Island fisheries, with fish above 50 cm also predominantly female. In 2018, a total of 101,020 detections were recorded from 32 of the 43 bonefish carrying acoustic tags with coded transmitters, and these movement patterns revealed specific lunar rhythms and timing in the spawning behaviour of the fish (Figure 2). While following a tagged bonefish from the southern end of the lagoon one afternoon, the frequency of ‘beeps’ on Alex’s receiver headset increased as he motored along in his boat, signalling that while the fish was still moving, he was also getting closer to it. Drifting in deep water out from the main village of Tukuhora and the northern pass, the fish stopped moving and was seemingly right under the boat. Alex placed his diving mask on and leaned over the side to take a closer look, with a dark mass of bonefish circling underneath him in a pre-spawn aggregation. This provided the first conclusive evidence of exactly when these fish were gathering before heading out to sea to spawn. Three days after the full moon from March to September, the bonefish would then travel to an inshore reef refuge area, and were observed periodically ‘porpoising’ in preparation for the journey to the ocean at night, to coincide with the run-out tide. Peak movement in the sea was detected 5–6 days after the full moon, where fish remained for a week or more before returning to the atoll’s lagoon. Critically, Alex’s research demonstrated that the largest females predominantly made the journey on the very first of the spawning months each year, which commenced in March, before numbers tapered off in the subsequent two months, highlighting the need for management during this important time. Male bonefish made several journeys over six months, at times moving up to 12 km in the ocean before returning inside. Gonadosomatic analysis of returning spent fish confirmed that successful spawning had taken place. These results suggested that for smaller females, the reproductive effort is staggered, while males undertake multiple spawning runs, accompanying newly developed females throughout the season. This reproductive strategy results in a prolonged spawning season that may help isolated populations manage environmental variability, and ensure a match between reproductive effort and factors required for successful recruitment, such as oceanic currents and larval food availability. The geomorphology of the atoll, its orientation, and the prevailing wind and swell direction from the southwest, suggest that in theory, a stable eddy exists on the down current (northeast) side of Anaa, where bonefish spawning activity is highest, thus facilitating self-recruitment in this isolated ecosystem. OUTCOMES While the full details of Alex’s PhD studies on Anaa are beyond the capacity of this article, he presented his findings to a series of community meetings and stakeholder groups. After successfully demonstrating that large female bonefish need to be protected for the critical three month spawning period each year, the local school children and elders then petitioned the community for the institution of the ancient Rãhui or closed season, while allowing an appropriate level of traditional harvest. The community voted in favour, and in March 2019, the Rãhui was enacted for the first time in centuries, deactivating all the traps in the bonefish migratory corridors. This management action will be implemented annually to improve the sustainability of the fishery and to maintain good numbers of big bonefish in the lagoon, while vitally increasing the numbers of juvenile fish recruited to the fishery. Additionally, the community dedicated a marine educational area next to the bonefish spawning grounds, and on hearing about it, French Polynesian president Édouard Fritch flew to Anaa and opened a marine park sanctuary in the same area, providing nursery habitat for a range of other species including triggerfish, bluefin and giant trevally. Complementing Alex’s work throughout this time, Fly Odyssey began training a guide team and taking fly fishing clients to Anaa to participate in the tagging projects, with contributing funds going towards a range of community improvement projects. These include a fly-tying cooperative, craft initiatives, honey and egg production, and a local baker providing baguettes for visiting guests. Construction of a dedicated fishing lodge has also begun, with the guide team being expanded to eight. With most spawning fish released from the traps since 2016, we have already seen the return of large numbers of juvenile bonefish on the flats, confirming that measurable changes to the fishery are well underway. Most importantly, the food security of the island has now been restored. With fly-fishing ecotourism on this stunning island now contributing to the local economy, Anaa can hopefully flourish again, retaining its culture and wonderful people for many decades to come.

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