John Rulmal conducts fish data collection workshop on Saliap island. Photo by Scott Davis
Colonia, Yap-- It all began with the green sea turtles. Home to one of the giant creatures’ largest nesting areas in Micronesia, Ulithi has been the site of some of the region’s most important research into turtle conservation since 1991. But the work was sporadic.
Beginning in 2004, the Oceanic Society began supporting the effort and trained a crew of local men in tagging, data collection and tissue sampling. Since then, these “local scientists” have tagged and released thousands of these ocean-going reptiles that arrive on the uninhabited island groupings of Gielop and Iar from April to August every year to lay their eggs. The data has been published by such organizations as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to increase the scientific community’s understanding of migration patterns, feeding grounds and other important insights into the life of turtles.
Asked how he first got involved in the project, John Rulmal, Jr. says, “I inherited the work. I did it just for fun when I returned to my home island of Falalop after going to school and working in Hawaii for several years.” His father was the one who first envisioned the need for management of this important natural resource that provides needed protein to the local diet, as well as the opportunity for community involvement and “a few jobs.”
“I didn’t have that level of awareness at first,” Rulmal says. But the more he got involved in the project by comparing, for example, the time of the nesting to when the traditional leaders allowed “takes” by the island’s residents and how it impacted survival rates, other aspects began to come into focus and eventually became his passion and vocation.
That work has since expanded and Rulmal is a prime example of someone who left the island for a college degree and greater work opportunities, but opted to return after several years to help his community.
As he thought about his opportunities to stay on the island and how community resources could be managed, it occurred to Rulmal that the turtle work might be a good opportunity to develop tourism. His degree, after all, was in tourism development and his father, one of the co-authors of the country’s constitution, had built the Ulithi Lodge to attract visitors to the island. Taking over the lodge after his father passed away, he began to see the potential of the turtles as “something cool to share with the world” and how this might be commercialized.
He eventually began working in close partnership with Jennifer Cruce Horeg of the Ulithi Marine Turtle Project to oversee the fieldwork. Horeg had been involved in the turtle project for several years along with natural resource specialist, Marjorie Falanruw of Yap, Birgit Winning, first with The Oceanic Society and now Bluecology, and Rulmal’s father. Then, Nicole Crane, Senior Conservation Scientist at the Oceanic Society, joined the project. It was a golden team with years of experience to share with the islanders. “Nicole has been a parent, a friend, a mentor to me,” says Rulmal.
Volunteer scientists, Dr. Eva Sales and May Roberts, collect fin clips from a surgeonfish to use DNA for identifying connectivity between the atolls. Photo by Scott Davis
Crane came to the island to learn from the residents. She didn’t bring a plan and was adamant that the people of the islands were the ones who could best decide what was needed and what was possible. Too often, she thought, people and organizations have brought plans to the island and the residents are told how they are to be done. But tossing outside plans and money at the problem is not the solution. Ulithi has been inhabited for thousands of years with sustainable, traditional and cultural knowledge of the reef and the marine life it supports. This information has been passed from generation to generation but rapid environmental changes and their impact have disrupted traditional ways.
“When Nicole asks what do I think, she means what do I think,” says Rulmal. “You mean what I think counts?” he asked her. After seeing many projects fail over the years because the community was excluded, Rulmal now saw something different. “That was the paradigm shift,” he says. “The true partnership. Then we were able to think we were bringing value to the table.”
Rulmal’s vision is to capture the value of tradition and culture that have sustained Ulithi for millennia and share them with the larger world. “But,” he says, “it’s definitely not about me. What I do and say in no way takes away from the community ownership and credit for it.”
What does tradition mean? What is traditional management? What about the daily lives of the Yapese and the pride they have in their way of life? What we can do to help future generations value the traditions and culture that past generations passed on through storytelling? These were some of the questions Rulmal began asking himself and the others. But the community first needed to learn how to manage their sustainable food supply from the surrounding ocean in light of the changes that were taking place both environmentally and culturally. The response, Rulmal notes, “was a revolutionary approach that lets our community lead through traditional management backed by modern science.”
As a result, attention began to expand from the turtles to the surrounding reef. Ulithi has 200 miles of reef and 41 low islets that encircle the fourth largest lagoon in the world. It is the nearest known land mass to Challenger Deep, the deepest point on earth calculated at 35,755 to 35,814 feet. Working in partnership with the chiefs, leaders, community members and scientific organizations that expanded to include Bluecology and biologists from several universities in California, the nonprofit organization One People One Reef was formed in 2010 to broaden the work by bringing “traditions and modern science together in a revolutionary approach to sustainable ocean management.”
Fish stocks were being depleted in the surrounding reef and the health of the reef was declining. A primary food source was at risk. A cry for help went out and Crane brought together a group of scientists to assess the problem that combined modern science with the islanders’ ancient techniques of ecological management. Today, the fish stock is being restored and has seen the people through two major storms that devastated the islands.
The paradigm shift that Rulmal describes of combining the modern with the traditional has also been brought into play in the aftermath of the destructive storms when aid organizations began shipping containers of materials that were not useful. They called a halt to the shipments and took the lead to determine what was needed. “No more bottled water! No more high heels!” Rulmal laughs. “We took the opportunity to say, ‘Wait a minute, we don’t need to take it as it’s given.’” In a country that has often passively accepted aid with no questions asked, taking responsibility for what was needed was a new way of doing things.
Nicole Crane and John Rulmal are shown managed areas on Elato island by local partners. Photo by Scott Davis.
Today, in addition to online fundraising and grants from the National Science Foundation and other foundations and organizations, funding is provided by the US-FSM Joint Economic Management Committee that promotes “the effective use of funding” under the COMPACT agreement. Programs now include bringing together high school and college students from the U.S. and Ulithi every summer for three weeks to work on coral reef science, conservation, and community projects. In 2017, the program began expanding to other Outer Islands, including Satawal and Woleai, with marine scientists joining youth and leaders from Ulithi for two weeks to help build capacity for management of reef resources. The first year, 15 researchers and participants used scientific assessments along with traditional management and community education to help develop plans that were right for each community. Eight atolls located across 600 miles of ocean have now been brought into the program.
Rulmal is animated when he talks about the group’s latest project, a children’s book of ten collected stories from the four inhabited islands around the Ulithi lagoon that is being published by the National Geographic in Ulithian and translated into English. The book will use the oral tradition of navigation stories and other stories that have value for children growing up in the current millennium for classroom learning.
Next up for the organization and its youth leaders is the eradication of monitor lizards and rats on the islands. The lizards were first brought to the islands for food by the Japanese. Today, along with the rats, they eat the turtle eggs. “We want to bring the island back to where it was before they were introduced,” Rulmal says. The three-year project will begin in 2020 on an uninhabited island. Non-toxic cereal wheat bait will be distributed on the island and motion-sensitive cameras will be set up to assess the animals’ density. The following year, samples of the creatures will be collected and a UV light will be shined on them to determine which and how many have consumed the bait, what it means to ocean runoff and other test factors. If successful, the toxic bait will be introduced. There are no people, dogs, cats, birds or native trees left on the island so the impact will be limited to the lizards and rats.
Now that these projects are gaining traction, Rulmal is focusing his attention on asking the youth what they think. “When the kids from California watch in amazement as the local kids make coconut oil, our youth get a sense of pride in what they do,” he says. It’s validation for the value of their culture and way of life. Rulmal expresses hope that they, too, will return after getting an education and continue supporting their home community with the same deep commitment that he and his father before him felt.