Forbidden Fruit of the Sea: Polynesia's Tabu System Conserves Marine Life


As a Word-of-the-Day email subscriber, I relish the exploration of language that increases my vocabulary. I am fascinated by etymology, especially the words that derive not from another language's roots--like "panjandrum," a word for an important person or pretentious official, coined in the 18th century in a piece of nonsense writing. So when I began researching the Hawaiian kapu ("forbidden") system that prevents overfishing, I was surprised to learn that Captain James Cook had brought the Tongan and Fijian word tabu back to England, which became our word--taboo. The Austronesian language family of Southeast Asia and the Pacific reveals related words for "forbidden"--tapu in New Zealand and Tahiti and kapu in Hawai'i.

Kapu Sign.jpgGrowing up with a Hawaiian-Chinese father, I was accustomed to seeing KAPU written on his dried aku (tuna) and tako (octopus sashimi), but further investigation of the kapu/tabu system reveals an ancient method of conserving natural ocean resources. At Seacology we ask islanders to establish and manage terrestrial or marine reserves, and the tabu system reveals why this approach to conservation respects islanders' traditions. The traditional tabu system outlined fishing limits to prevent depleting marine life (in addition to restrictions on eating, a chief's rights and privileges, etc). Seacology's no-take reserves respect this ancient tradition, preventing overfishing and protecting all marine life.

Christopher Pala's article in The New York Times, "No-Fishing Zones in Tropics Yield Fast Payoffs for Reefs" highlights Palau as a leader in marine conservation and states that the traditional tabu system generates local interest and a feeling of responsibility to protect marine life. As Seacology's mission is to preserve island environments and cultures, it is a bonus that conservation strategies correspond to ancient traditions. Mr. Pala's insightful article quotes Alifereti Tawaki of the University of the South Pacific in Fiji:

The old system of controlling fishing with the taboo system is being adapted
and improved because people still respect their traditional chiefs. They're
used to fishing where they want, but when they see the decline of the fish
and the results of the no-take areas, they see it's the way to go.

As an anthropology major, what I value most about Seacology is our culturally-sensitive approach to conservation, that we give the local people what they request rather than what we think they need. I am even more impressed that the conservation strategy itself reflects cultural tradition.


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This page contains a single entry by Ellen Kamoe published on November 30, 2007 9:00 AM.

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