Q&A: The fight to keep indigenous fishing knowledge alive in the Solomon Islands

by George J. Maelagi | 24 January 2024 | Moana Voices, News

Miriam Arzienta Sulu is a Bachelor of Fisheries graduate from Solomon Islands National University, currently working as a graduate research assistant in the university’s  Department of Fisheries Studies.

Her current work involves supporting the implementation of a tuna bottling initiative, assisting in fish market surveys in Honiara City, and working on artisanal fisheries studies in the West Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands.

In this Q&A, Miriam talks about her university research which looked at indigenous fishing methods using the Gria’a net to catch bonito fin fish.

Tell us about your research

My research work started off as an alternative for a course unit because we lacked a lecturer to teach us. It was turned into a research project. I was privileged to be requested by the department to do my research in Isabel province. My fellow classmates chose different traditional fishing methods to study in their own provinces. 

The department saw potential in our findings and realised that this could be made into something bigger, so they compiled and improved some of our proposals and applied for funding. My work in Isabel province is focused on communities that are still using the “Gria’a” indigenous fishing method to catch bonito finfish, specifically the skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis). The Gria’a net is sewn from the bark of a tree locally known as Nadone (Trichospermum psilocladum). 

What fieldwork have you been doing to date?

We have visited two communities, Koge and Talise, and are looking forward to visiting other communities as well. Surprisingly, In Isabel province, most communities who are custodians of indigenous fishing knowledge are living in the highlands. 

They would make their way down to the sea and to San Jorge Island just to catch tuna using the Gria’a net. Interacting with the indigenous people allows me to capture their daily struggles of road access to and from the Kaevanga port, as well as lack of youth interest to learn the traditional methods. This is influencing the loss of indigenous fishing knowledge.

Sadly, this Gria’a fishing method has not been practiced since 2002 by the Koge community leading to traditional fishing knowledge and practice eroding over time. Young people are moving to urban areas for work or school creating lesser interest in the indigenous ways of life.

Ms. Miriam (middle) with Reverend Casper and Dr Kofi Apreku

What are some of the challenges you face in undertaking this research?

Koge and Talise have rich and complex cultural beliefs. This method of fishing only involves men in the fishing expedition. The women will only assist in meal preparation and carrying of materials and food from the village to the river mouth. 

This poses a challenge for me as a lady doing this research since I cannot be a part of some of the significant activities. Nevertheless, my research partner is a young man who assists and leads situations where I cannot participate.

Being the only female in the team, sometimes I feel that my opinions are not taken into consideration or appreciated. Moreover, the fishers are comprised of men only and often times they are mainly comfortable talking with my supervisor and my research partner who are male. Finally, one of my limitations is the language barrier which restricts a smooth communication with the indigenous people there.

How have you been disseminating your research findings?

Having already collected some preliminary findings of this ongoing Indigenous Fishing Knowledge research, I submitted an abstract for the Pacific Islands conference on ocean science and ocean management. 

Fortunately, I was selected to present the findings at the conference in Fiji which took place between the 11th and 15th September 2023. This event allowed me to broaden my knowledge on ocean science. A key theme was use of fisheries resources wisely while safeguarding them via the integration of modern and traditional ocean science.

Miriam (right) at the Pacific Island Conference on Ocean Science and Ocean Management in Fiji, September 2023

Miriam (right) at the Pacific Island Conference on Ocean Science and Ocean Management in Fiji, September 2023

You attended the United Nations Global Indigenous Youth Caucus in Rome last year – what was that experience like?

The forum was hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which provided a space for dialogue between indigenous youths representing their countries and affiliations to participate in insightful panel discussions and share their stories and challenges. 

We also discussed policy recommendations affecting the future of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems and knowledge in the context of climate action. 

During the Forum, I had the opportunity to participate and contribute in meetings and make connections. This space allowed me to share my work in reviving and documenting indigenous fishing knowledge in the Solomons, and integrating it with the small-scale tuna bottling initiative. 

Furthermore, we were also able to meet the Australian and New Zealand Permanent Secretary Representative to FAO and discuss some pressing issues that are affecting our small island nations and most especially the lack of Pacific representation at a global scale.

What are the next steps you wish to take in your career?

I aspire to build my career in fisheries via research engagements, professional networking and capacity-building opportunities, and higher studies, while creating a platform where other young indigenous people who are driven to support our nation may be involved.

I want to engage in meaningful conversations that address urgent issues brought on by climate change on a worldwide basis. 

My goal is to help create a country where young people serve as change agents in a society that currently lacks adequate government support and acknowledgment in these areas. If only the Government could see through indigenous people’s eyes, they would understand better the struggles our indigenous people are facing due to climate change.