anaa pecheurs atoll polynesie

Anaa atoll's wealth: the kiokio or bonefish

In the Tuamotu islands, on the small atoll of Anaa, a Type of fish, the Kiokio, is at the origin of an innovative form of eco-tourism, developed by a group of pioneers, enthusiasts and the island’s youth.

Lying 377 km East of Tahiti, the island of Anaa is on the edge of the Tuamotu archipelago. It is oval-shaped, 28km long and 7km wide, the second largest landmass in the Tuamotu, after Rangiroa, with a land surface of 37.7km2 made up of eleven islets (or motu) encircling 90km2 of lagoon.  The development of the atoll is taking on an unusual dimension, following an innovative economic model. It is home to some 500 inhabitants, who alongside fishing, rely on coprah production to make their living, collecting coconuts from their own groves, drying them and sending them to Tahiti, to be transformed into oil. On such isolated islands, far from Tahiti, the only alternative sources of income are small scale tourism, exporting fish, and for certain atolls pearl-farming (Anaa, however, is not suitable for this).

anaa atoll tuamotu polynesie

The lack of employment often forces the island’s youth to look to different horizons, reducing educational opportunities further, and in the end causing the population to dwindle. On Anaa, through the launching of a pilot project, new opportunities are emerging that allow the island’s economy to grow and diversify, in particular encouraging a sustainable eco-tourism that values and helps to preserve the atoll’s natural and cultural wealth.

Anaa, an ideal place forfly-fishing

There is a fish that is particularly appreciated by the local inhabitants; it is this same fish that is behind what could be a small revolution occurring on the island, and a potential model for development. The kiokio or Roundjaw bonefish (Albula glossodonta) has a preference for Anaa’s lagoon with its shallow waters, where it feeds on benthic sludge worms, small fry, crustaceans and mollusks. This diet is what gives the fish its unique flavor, a local delicacy. For generations, the island’s fishermen have built fish parks, open traps made using blocks of coral-stone. The fish, trapped within the structure at low tide, are easy to catch, in large numbers. More recently the use of wire netting has allowed permanent traps to be built, when previously the fish could escape at high tide. It allows an increase in the catch, but prevents the females from leaving the lagoon, in order to lay their eggs in the ocean. As a result the abundance of this fish, that is eaten both fresh and dried, was starting to drop, and over time it could even have been in danger of disappearing.

anaa tuamotu kiokio poisson

However, the kiokio also attracts another kind of fisherman, from far away (Europeans, Americans, Australians…), who discovered this incredible spot a few years ago, fans of quite another technique, fly fishing. Establishing a conservation program for the kiokio seemed to be necessary to ensure two important objectives were met, first of all ensuring a future for the atoll’s preferred food fish, whilst also developing an unusual tourist niche, of economic interest to the islanders. The Island Initiative Foundation commissioned a scientific study, three years ago, in the context of the pilot project it was launching there. This study allowed a better understanding of the kiokio’s lifecycle, in particular identifying the reproduction sites and periods.

This resulted in a solution for preserving this natural resource being found. Putting the solution into practice required the temporary removal of fish traps in certain zones, an action that would not have been possible without the motivation and willpower of Anaa’s schoolchildren, who helped convince the adults that rapid action was needed.

Anaa atoll : "Te kura Moana no tagihia", educational marine reserve

For the last two years, Anaa’s school has put in place a participative teaching technique that was first developed here in French Polynesia, originating in the Marquesas in 2012. The Educational Marine Reserve (Aire marine educative, AME) program has since been adopted on a national scale.

 A small coastal area is managed in an interactive way by schoolchildren, following the principles outlined by a charter. The students from Anaa have been working with Alex Filous, a young American PhD student, hired by The Island Initiative Foundation. Following on from his study, he established a scientific protocol for the school, focused specifically on the kiokio. The schoolchildren chose a zone of the lagoon near the village as a conservation and study area. This zone was traditionally a sacred site, reserved for “royalty”, and also the kiokio’s main breeding ground, they gather there before leaving the lagoon and laying their eggs on the other side of the reef.

aire marine educative anaa
kiokio poisson anaa

Called “Te kura moana no tagihia”, the reserve has an area of two square kilometers. The school’s project received support from the vast majority of the population. A three month long rāhui was put into place. This traditional ancestral practice, allows nature to regenerate within a defined zone, during an allocated period when exploiting the resource is forbidden, in this case the fish. This rāhui was put into action on March 1st, 2019. From now on, between March and June, the fish parks’ wire netting will be removed, in order to let the kiokio move around freely, and allow it to reproduce.

An agreement has been signed by the foundation, the island’s fishermen and the school, in order to enforce the rāhui and to monitor the impact on the kiokio stocks. The established AME label allows the schoolchildren to learn more about their lagoon and to protect their natural resources, in order to manage it in a sustainable way, a concept that is clearly a priority for this island community. By visiting Anaa, tourists are choosing an authentic experience, whilst also helping to preserve the traditional way of life. They discover a natural and cultural heritage that is far removed from mass tourism, where hospitality and sharing are values proudly upheld by the local community. Tourists arrive on Anaa knowing they will leave as friends!

Tuamotu Islands : fly fishing

Fly fishing is an outdoors activity, and hobby, which involves catching fish using a fishing pole and a lure called a fly, made to mimic an insect, or its larva. Made popular by Robert Redford’s 1990 film starring Brad Pitt, A River Runs Through It, it is sport fishing – practiced in the middle of a river, lake or sea – which means the fish that have been caught are then released. Because of its beauty and uniqueness, Anaa has now joined the list of international fly-fishing destinations – a Mecca for connoisseurs of the art. Fly Odyssey, a specialist tour operator, in partnership with the Island Initiative Foundation, is working to promote the destination on the international market. The founder of this travel agency has chosen a more human approach to business and is supportive of initiatives developed by the island, in particular it contributes to Anaa’s development fund that is managed by The Island Initiative and fed by the donations made by every tourist that the company sends to the atoll.

anaa atoll

The Island initiative : a philosophy for development

The main objective of The Island Initiative Foundation is to promote the economic independence and natural resource management of isolated and often somewhat forgotten islands. The English based foundation was co-founded and is managed by Hinano Bagnis, a Polynesian woman who has a doctorate in law, on “La promotion des investissements en Polynésie française : Approches nationale, communautaire, international (Promoting investments in French Polynesia: National, community, international approaches)”. The Island Initiative wanted to help the population affirm their existence and allow them to have a choice in their own future. Giving them a viable option of staying on their own island, without being forced into an economic exile, in order to earn a living; also giving their children the choice to return after they have finished their education, that necessarily takes them to another island. Fly fishing is an activity that offers Anaa’s community the opportunity to value their knowledge of the island and the ancient fishing traditions. It also allows for the development of other tourist activities, such as guided fishing trips, cultural tours, handicrafts, agriculture, home-stay accommodation … all using an approach that respects both the environment and the culture.


Educational Marine reserves : an idea born in Polynesia

The concept of an “Educational Marine Reserve” was dreamed up in the Marquesas in 2012, by the children of Vaitahu primary school (on the island of Tahuata), with the support of the Motu Haka federation and the former Agency for Protected Marine Reserves. It is an initiative supported by the French Polynesian government and the community of local councils in the Marquesas (communes des îles Marquises, CODIM). Several other schools in Tahiti have since become involved, assisted by French Polynesia’s General Directorate of Teaching and Education (DGEE). In 2015, the program was expanded to a national scale  whilst conserving the original concept and three underlying basic principles: “experiencing, living with and sharing the sea”.

Book : the ocean and commons, the rāhui in Polynesia

Tamatoa Bambridge, François Gaulme, Christian Montet & Thierry Paulais, Au Vent des Îles, May 2019. To find out more about lagoon management, you can read about the subject in this newly released book, that investigates the relationship between the traditional practice of rāhui, an ancient set-aside system used by traditional Polynesian society, and new management techniques for managing lagoons, based on the notion of the Commons.

Source : Reva Tahiti Magazine

Text : Claude Jacques-Bourgeat

Pictures : Hutchins, P. Bacchet