Peter T. Wilson: Micronesia legend
By Pat Bryan
\I vividly remember seeing Peter Wilson that first time in the summer of 1967. I was one of 17 new Peace Corps trainees in a special fisheries program for Micronesia. If we survived training, we would be working for Peter. We were in Palau at the boatyard sitting on a plywood floor. The stories we'd heard about Peter were awesome—and when he walked in, we knew he was as advertised.
He lectured us for an hour, ending in this: Things are not easy in the islands and if you want something done, you probably must do it yourself. If you can't take challenges and hard times, then you should pack up and go home. Most of our group, sooner or later, went home. Peter had no qualms about calling out the Peace Corps for what it was: free labor.
Peter Wilson was the chief of Marine Resources for the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands from1962 through 1976. A Punahou High School alumnus on Oahu, he had worked on Kewalo Basin aku (tuna) boats during summers between college gigs at the University of Hawaii and the University of Washington School of Fisheries. His major interests were in pelagic tuna resources.
One of Peter's major accomplishments was the establishment of the Palau boatyard. The Van Camp Sea Food Co. operated a freezer plant in Malakal Harbor and had a fleet of about 10 Okinawa-style sampan vessels in the 60-foot range that needed dry docking services. Peter brought in a master boat builder (Kiyoshi Matsumoto) from Hawaii and built a line of small runabouts, 30-foot, and 36-foot sampans to supply the six trust territory districts with fishing and work boats.
Peter's background in Hawaiian tuna fisheries led him to build a 78-foot live-bait aku vessel, Emeraech, to fish alongside the Van Camp sampans and demonstrate the efficiencies of Hawaiian-style aku fishing. The vessel was manned by young men from throughout the six trust territory districts. Peter recruited Richard Kinney, an aku boat captain from Hawaii, to run the boat and train the islanders in live-bait aku fishing.
In Palau, local islanders were getting increasingly concerned about the growing number of saltwater crocodiles. Several Palauans had been killed by these and children on Babelthaub walked to school through crocodile-infested mangroves. In response, Peter brought out two hunters from Australia to teach Palauans how to shoot the animals, cure the skins, and export them. Another successful program, within a year they had harvested some 250 animals significantly decreasing the population.
But crocodiles were not the only biological problem plaguing Micronesia and the South Pacific. Acanthaster planci, commonly known as “crown-of-thorns” starfish, were experiencing a population explosion ranging from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia north throughout Indonesia, the Philippines, Micronesia and even Hawaii. Harboring poisonous spines, they feed on live corals and were causing significant damage to coral reefs throughout the region.
Peter was on it. He obtained grants from Westinghouse Corp. to fund a control program to fight the animals in Micronesia, setting up dive shops in districts impacted by the starfish. Paul Tzimoulis, editor of Skin Diver Magazine, filmed a movie about the problem in Palau, Truk (Chuuk), and several other places.
Peter was an operator. By that I mean, he was convincing. He was not slick, but he was overwhelmed with his straightforward style. If he wanted something, he usually figured out a way to get it. He utilized the U. S. Coast Guard to fly in parts for the Emeraech, among other things. He convinced the trust territory to assign a full-time troubleshooter to handle any equipment problems. He had me managing the Palau Fishermen’s Coop and another PCV kept books for the Palau boatyard.
When the starfish problem broke out, he convinced the U.S. Navy on Guam to donate a large-capacity air compressor so we could fill scuba tanks. Peter could get things done, period.
On a trip to the mainland, while sitting in a Los Angeles lounge, Peter overheard some film producers discussing a movie script about a WWII-downed pilot in the Pacific. Peter introduced himself, then convinced them to film the movie “where it happened,” i.e., in Palau. This resulted in a Hollywood filming production in the Palau rock islands (“Hell in the Pacific,” starring Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune).
But that's not all. Peter talked Lee Marvin (an avid big game fisherman) into building a sports fishing vessel at the Palau boatyard. Ngerenchol, a 46-footer, was built and Lee's operation trained Palauans in the art of sport fishing as part of the tourism industry which was opening up in Micronesia.
While I worked for Peter as a PCV, he often talked about his vision for building a marine laboratory/aquaculture facility along the seawall bordering the west side of Malakal Island where the Japanese, prior to WWII, had built a refrigeration plant. This came to fruition in early 1971. Peter brought in tin-roofed military buildings from Enewetok Island in the Marshall Islands and reconstructed them for use as laboratories. He had the U.S. Job Corps build ferro cement circular tanks for aquaculture work and outfitted them with a gravity-flow sea water system supplied from tanks on top of the reefer plant.
The Micronesian Mariculture Demonstration Center was thus born. Biological work was begun on rabbitfish and freshwater shrimp (Machrobrachium). Peter hired me on contract to work on rabbitfish (Siganid) culture and we were able to work out the life histories of several species, becoming the first in the world to do so. Later, work was begun on giant clam (Tridacna) culture.
Peter left the trust territory in 1975 for a job in Oman. He founded his own consulting firm (Global Ocean Consultants) and worked on tuna projects in the Maldives and New Guinea before retiring on Maui. But he will always be best known as the trust territory fisheries guy, and in Palau as the fisheries rubak.
Pat Bryan is author of The Fish and Rice Chronicles: My Extraordinary Adventures in Palau and Micronesia (2011). He earned his M.S. degree at the University of Guam Marine Laboratory. Peter T. Wilson is author of Aku! The History of Tuna Fishing in Hawaii and the Western Pacific (2010).