Q&A: Exploring indigenous knowledge to foster sustainable fishing practices

by George J. Maelagi | 15 January 2024 | Moana Voices, News

Eel trap weaver Charles Ngauoeura with researchers Jasmine Rahi'i and Beth Hekimo

Solomon Islands-based fisheries researcher Jasmine Rahi’i has been involved in a unique project looking at traditional fishing methods used by Solomon Islanders to catch species of tropical eels. 

In this Q&A, TunaPacific contributor George Maelagi talks to Jasmine about her research and the insights it can yield to inform sustainable fishing of eels by Solomon Island communities.

Tell us about yourself

My name is Jasmine Rahi’i. My field of study is the Bachelor in Fisheries. I started my studies in 2019 when I did a Diploma in Fisheries before being recommended to do my Bachelor in Fisheries studies in the year 2021 which I completed in 2023.

What research project you’ve been working on?

The name of the research project is Indigenous Fishing Knowledge (IFK) and we are trying to document the traditional indigenous fishing methods here in the Solomon Islands. 

Currently, we are working on a fish net from the Isabel province, an eel fish trap from Makira province, and an Ok’kokwariri fishing net made from rope in Fo’eda, Lau in the Malaita province. These are the three provinces we are currently working in to date.

The Indigenous Fishing Knowledge project didn’t actually come in the form of regular university research. The UNDP made a call for proposals and so the head of the school and other senior lecturers decided to put together our assignments and submitted a proposal to UNDP. That’s when we won the proposal for funding.

We did this in June of 2023. The project is expected to run for 18 months. Specifically for me, I did research on Makira province, involving a traditional eel fishing trap called ‘Aura’. It is a basket which they use to catch eel fish. Initially we thought that this fishing method was done only in Manhigo, a village inland of Makira. But when we got there, we realised that this fishing method was actually practiced by many surrounding inland communities, including Manhigo. 

Ms. Jasmine Rahi’i in the lab at the Solomon Islands National University School of Fisheries

Jasmine Rahi’i in the lab at the Solomon Islands National University School of Fisheries

What have you discovered about this fishing method?

This method of trapping eel or Aura is a sustainable fishing practice because the trap selects eels based on their size. The bigger ones are harvested while the undersized ones can be left until they reach maturity.

One of the issues with fishing methods today is the impact on streams and rivers, and the scarcity of the material used to weave the traps, due to logging developments. 

People now have to go far in search of the vine to make the Aura. Another factor is the growing population. People are clearing parts of the forest for gardening, so suitable materials to make the traps are harder to find.

What are the challenges of sustaining this method in the modern world?

Apart from logging operations and the growing need for land for gardening, the traditional knowledge of how to build these traps is slowly fading. The Aura is not a trap that is used daily but only for traditional occasions and ceremonies. 

Some of these ceremonies are now being banned, so the fishing method is slowly fading as well. For some of the traditional ceremonies, people are allowed to eat meats other than eels, especially in ceremonies relating to death. 

Today, people just go out with knives to cut eels, which is not sustainable and also damages the environment as it kills the flora and fauna including the aquatic plants in the area. 

Tropical eels are very rare. There isn’t much research on tropical eels here, unlike in Fiji. We need to document what we know about these species.

For me, it’s not just about looking at the traditional trap and its significance to the people, but research more on the scientific part and see what species Solomon Islands has so that we can contribute to tropical eel research. Scientific research suggests that American and European eel species originated from tropical eels.

It’s talking about the type of species, the spawning season, and their migration habits, because eels spawn at sea before making their way up to the freshwater streams. We really need to know about their migration habits.

We are doing the social science aspects of this research by documenting the traps etc, but we cannot venture into the scientific aspects because, initially, the funding is very small. To find out what kind of species of eels are there, and study spawning seasons would take years.

Charles Ngauoeura, the oldest trap weaver in his community.

Charles Ngauoeura, the oldest trap weaver in his community.

How important are eels to the diet of Solomon Islanders?

There are many things to learn about eel species, freshwater eel and saltwater eel. 

In the Solomon Islands, we have many highland communities which have limited access to saltwater fish and rely on nearby streams and rivers for freshwater eel as one of their main sources of protein. Fish protein contains Omega 3, Omega 6 fatty acids, unlike pork and chicken. So eel is just the same as fish in that it is a very important protein for our communities. If these communities have limited access to saltwater fish or marine species then their only option for such protein is from the freshwater eels. 

What’s been your experience as a woman undertaking this research?

One of the challenges I faced while doing this research as a female is not getting a positive response from community elders. As part of the research, we have to call on the men who actually have the knowledge and skill to build the eel traps. 

When we sit down with them to talk with them there is some resistance, seeing as I am female. They are not as open to sharing their knowledge with a female, as in their custom women do not participate in the Aura. It is really a struggle to get the information that you really need for the research.

During the field research, I was partnered with another female as well, so it was quite difficult for both of us when dealing with the men. Luckily our supervisor was a male, so he assisted us by talking to the men for us. But getting the information from a secondary source was a bit confusing, especially on questions we really thought needed detailed answers for the write-up of the research. 

We also just don’t have enough scientific knowledge or information about these primitive species of tropical eel. 

My advice to young women and female students undertaking such studies is that you can do and should it. There are certainly times you feel like giving up is an option especially when there is a lack of financial support for your studies. It’s just a matter of making it your passion and persevering.

Charles Ngauoeura with researchers Jasmine Rahi'i and Beth Hekimo

Eel trap weaver Charles Ngauoeura with researchers Jasmine Rahi’i and Beth Hekimo