The main reason why I am out in Pohnpei is to work with the Community Conservation Officers and Department of Fish and Wildlife to come up with a training program and recommendations for improvements to different conservation enforcement programs, in particular the rangers of Ant Atoll, OneReefs main focus so far in Pohnpei. Prior to my decision to come to MIIS, I was a police officer at the California State University Monterey Bay and prior to that I had done numerous support jobs such as records and evidence and being a Community Service Officer, in total I spent almost four years working for a police department, hence my being sent to basically do law enforcement consulting in Pohnpei.
My first week in Pohnpei was mostly spent touring around, getting to know the island (and adjusting to the food here), and meeting with important contacts from different areas, after that I spent about a week reviewing documents and getting a better understanding of the MPA system. Just when I thought the reading would never end I got some good news, I would be going out to Ant Atoll to spend five days with Rohsa (the traditional King of Ant) and the rangers that patrol the area.
Two days later I was excited to be out on a boat crossing to Ant atoll, the crossing takes about an hour depending upon sea conditions and crosses some of the bluest water I’ve ever seen. The first thing I saw as we pulled out of the dock area was some of the largest purse seiners I have ever seen, these vessels were easily almost 300 feet long with helicopters and mother ships that were at least 500 feet long, not surprisingly, Chinese vessels flagged out of Panama and as I was told later, American and European owners.
As we pulled up to Ant I couldn’t help but notice the abundance of blacktip reef sharks and schools of large fish in the shallows of the lagoon close to where our huts were, signs of a healthy ecosystem. After a settling down and having dinner I headed out on patrol with the rangers. It was fairly dark out, even with the full moon as we headed to the northwest corner of the lagoon to check for poachers, upon determining the area was clear, we headed back up toward the channel and finally back to our huts.
After our patrol I spoke with one of the rangers who was showing me the logbooks, he told me that there wasn’t much they could do because they are not sworn law enforcement officers, just community members employed by Rohsa to protect the Ant Lagoon, so generally when they find poachers they just politely ask them to fish outside of the lagoon. He also told me that they frequently receive death threats and often have spearguns pointed at them.
The next day was a fairly relaxed day so I decided to take a kayak out and check out parts of the lagoon, I was sad to find numerous pieces of trash floating in the lagoon and did my best to remove as much as possible.
The next day the Association of Pacific Island Legislators came to Ant for a lunch retreat as part of their conference, they were also there to present a proposal to Rohsa for Ant to be designated as a turtle sanctuary. During his speech, Rohsa asked the Pohnpei State Legislators that were there to take this as an opportunity to enact stricter laws and policies regarding fishing in Ant. After the conference I took some time to swim with the blacktip reef sharks that hang out in the area in front of the huts.
That night, the rangers and I went out on patrol again, after determining the lagoon was clear we returned to the huts and I settled in to get some sleep. Not much later, around one in the morning, I hear someone calling my name, its one of the rangers and they’ve spotted some poachers entering the lagoon. I jump up, grab my glasses, headlamp, and my bag with my med kit and run down the stairs, I throw on my flip flops at the bottom of the stairs and run toward the rangers boat, the chase was on! We raced across the lagoon as the tiny dot in the distance began to form into the shape of a small boat. As we got closer, the ranger at the front of the boat had to point a light down to ensure that we would not run aground on one of the many shallow reefs. We approached the boat and did a loop around, there were four occupants, spearguns, ice chests, and propane stoves. After a brief exchange in Pohnpeian, the boat left the lagoon and sat just outside the barrier reef. One of the rangers informed me that it was common for poachers to leave and sit just outside the lagoon until the rangers left then come back to the lagoon and begin fishing again, they also informed me that one of the individuals we contacted was frequently out there poaching, has made multiple threats to the rangers, including pointing spearguns at them, and even stole one of their generators at speargun point. We waited in a half-awake, half-asleep doze until four in the morning when we decided to head back to the huts, after being up most of the night I was happy to lay down and catch some rest.
The next day I decided to walk to the north side of the island in order to snorkel in some of the reefs there, the water was warm, clear, and calm, basically the exact opposite of diving or snorkeling in Monterey. The amount of coral and fish astonished me, I even got to see a very large stingray!
After exploring the reefs, I went with two of the rangers to observe one of the aquaculture operations on the island, giant clam farming. Historical records show that giant clams were once very common on Pohnpei and Ant Atoll, however due to over fishing they no longer exist on Ant outside of the clam farm. Rohsa started the clam farm as an opportunity to reintroduce giant clams into the Ant Lagoon.
While I enjoyed my time on Ant, it has definitely been nice to be back in the air conditioned CSP office writing reports and working on my training programs for the rangers and the Community Conservation Officers in other areas of Pohnpei.