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Who Are the Scientists Here?

Mo’orea, a Pacific Island, spotlights the rift in conservation between foreign scientists and Indigenous people.

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The first thing we did after arriving in Moʻorea, a high volcanic island 20 kilometers northwest of Tahiti, was pick up a hitchhiker named Didier. I was visiting the island with Hannah Stewart, a Canadian marine biologist with a passion for tiny “housekeeper” crabs as well as Polynesian culture. Stewart was busy with the first iteration of a new class she’d created to bring Berkeley undergraduates to Mo’orea. The students stayed at the University of California’s Gump South Pacific Research Station, but ranged over the island, learning about biodiversity, environmental policy, and Tahitian culture from local experts.

Stewart pulled over so that I could look down the densely foliated hillside to the lagoon. Coconut palms stuck their heads over a white sand beach, from which thatched tourist bungalows crept out over impossibly turquoise water, splotched with shadowy outcroppings of coral. Stewart is the kind of outdoorsy blue-eyed blond I envied in high school, but what’s really appealing about her is a kind of impetuous energy that makes it seem, when you’re with her, like anything could happen. Didier must have felt it, too, because he immediately asked in French whether she was single. Hannah let him down gently, then asked a question of her own: What did he know about the American research station on the island?

“Gump?” Didier said. “I thought that was closed.”

“That’s the problem,” Stewart said to me after Didier hopped out. Marine conservation in Mo’orea was stymied by foreign scientists’ failure to communicate with the island’s Indigenous people and other local communities. “That’s what we’re trying to address with this class.”

CORAL GARDENING: A local Mo’orea conservation group, the Coral Gardeners, source “super corals”—those that have demonstrated the ability to recover from or resist a bleaching event—and using fragments, grow those corals in underwater nurseries on metal coral trees or ropes. Photo courtesy of Coral Gardeners.

I had come to Mo’orea because of something Stewart told me during our first call in the summer of 2021. “We’re not just training scientists, because we maybe—probably—don’t need more scientists,” she said. The reasons Stewart was fed up with academic research—the parachuting in and out of field sites to collect data, and the intense specialization inside even very similar subfields—were what interested me. I’m a novelist, and I sometimes write about scientists. Imaginary worlds rest heavily on concrete detail, and nothing is more concrete than a complex experimental set-up in a lab. Because conflict is at the heart of fiction, I wanted to know more about the tension between scientists and French Polynesia’s Indigenous communities, today referred to as Māʻohi peoples in Reo Tahiti (the Tahitian language).

Coral is abundant in the Society Islands of French Polynesia, which include Mo’orea and Tahiti. Known as “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs are the world’s most colorful manifestations of biodiversity. Nearly 25 percent of marine species live in or around these reef-building sessile organisms, which are threatened, and in many places decimated, by climate change and coastal development. Their revival is critical to oceans’ health, as well as the health of over 500 million people worldwide who rely on them for sustenance. Moʻorea is an epicenter of coral reef science because of the longevity of its two research stations. The French station CRIOBE was founded in 1971, followed by Gump in 1985.

Still, there’s a lot the scientists don’t know. Two months before I arrived in Moʻorea, media around the world reported the discovery of a new coral reef by a deep-sea mapping mission, supported by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). Scientists used the word “pristine” to describe the reef, made up of rose-shaped coral whose spreading plates evolved to capture light. The reef is located between 100 and 210 feet below the surface in the mesophotic zone, the deepest oceanic layer that sunlight can penetrate. Its depth possibly explains its health, protecting it from warming seawater, acidification, and pollution that have been so deadly to coral at shallower elevations. Amid all the bad news about coral degradation, the reef’s existence was hailed as an encouraging discovery. “This remarkable discovery in Tahiti demonstrates the incredible work of scientists,” stated a press release by UNESCO.

“It’s way more sexy and fun to plant a coral or adopt a coral than to eat less meat or fly less.”

When I asked Rahiti Buchin, head of the Tahitian competitive spearfishing club Team Tefana, about the rose coral reef, he replied by email: “Who discovered it? Our ancestors and certainly not those who boasted about it in the local and international press.” He wrote in French, still the predominant language in Tahitian schools, but used the Indigenous word tupuna to refer to his ancestors.

The disconnect between Māʻohi and foreign scientists was evident in Stewart’s class one afternoon. We were gathered in Gump’s fare pote’e, a thatched Polynesian pavilion at the edge of Cook’s Bay. Mount Mouʻaputa towered over us, identifiable in Moʻorea’s lushly forested volcanic range by the round hole just below its summit, intermittently hidden by clouds. The students were learning about the debate over Plan de Gestion de l’Espace Maritime, or PGEM—a type of marine protected area that had been extremely contentious on the island—and rāhui, a traditional practice of resource management which can include, for instance, a ban on the use of a particular marine resource for a specific period of time.

Claude Teiho, who looks like an aging movie star, with thick silver hair and the muscular frame of an expert free diver, is president of the island’s fishers’ union. Sitting on a red plastic chair facing a semi-circle of students, he explained that he made his first spearfishing gun himself out of wood and the inner tubing from bicycle tires, using a spoon as the trigger mechanism. His first goggles were made from the bases of two glass soda bottles. Teiho explained that coral reefs had long been affected by nature’s cycles. In 2010, he said, Mo’orea was hit by an outbreak of the crown-of-thorns starfish that decimated reefs by feeding on stony coral. Along with a cyclone the following year, the venomous purple sea stars devastated all but around 2 percent of Moʻorea’s reef. Teiho’s son Taiano, who was sitting in on the class, told the students that he’d been terrified by the state of the lagoon at that time, but that his father had reassured him by explaining that the reef had the capacity to regenerate on its own.

What Teiho predicted had come true, and within eight years the reef had regenerated. In 2019, however, a severe bleaching event destroyed 50 percent of the coral on Moʻorea’s forereef, the portion of the barrier reef that faces the open ocean. Coral bleaches because of thermal stress; after a period of time at an intolerable temperature, the coral expels its symbiotic zooxanthellae—the microscopic dinoflagellates that provide food through photosynthesis in exchange for shelter, but can be toxic to their hosts at high temperatures. The tiny plants can return to the coral when the water cools, but with prolonged or repeated bleaching, the coral will die and quickly be overgrown with algae.

When the students asked Teiho about climate change as he’s observed it over 50 years fishing in Moʻorea, he connected its impact on the lagoon to the fact that many Tahitians had lost their ability to understand lunar cycles. That sounded less like science than folklore, and the conversation moved on to other topics. Stewart asked Teiho whether he knew what was going on at Gump Station. Teiho shrugged and said, “a lot of research.” Stewart shook her head at the scientists’ failure to connect with local communities, especially around environmental policy. “We have to do better,” she murmured. Teiho gestured toward the lagoon. “You don’t need a degree to understand this,” he suggested. “It’s obvious.”

Local communities and foreign scientists share the goal of reviving the area’s reefs. Both are testing restoration concepts that fall into the broad category of assisted evolution, including strategies designed to boost the reefs’ resilience to anthropogenic stressors. The problem is the number of competing interests in a lagoon that is immeasurably valuable to science, to tourism, to fishers, and most of all to the people who call the 50-square-mile island home.

Early one morning, I kayaked across Cook’s Bay to talk with Taiano, a founding member of a conservation organization, Coral Gardeners. The gardeners work out of a modest office that backs onto the bay, under a galvanized steel roof equipped with solar panels. Kayaking was the most efficient way to get there from Gump, and I attempted to look nonchalant as I lugged my boat out of the water in front of an international group of bronzed 20-somethings, who either surf seriously or look as if they might. Taiano, who grew up with Titouan Bernicot, the organization’s founder, first noticed white flecks in the water while surfing in neighboring ‘Ōpūnohu Bay. Free diving to investigate, he and Bernicot found bone white coral, which they then Googled to learn about bleaching and ocean acidification. This marriage of local experience and technology is typical of the organization, apparent in the Silicon-valley-style pitch deck Taiano showed me on his laptop under the tamanu tree growing out of an opening in the office’s back deck.

LOCAL TRADITION: Hinano Teavai-Murphy, president of a community-based organization that aims to preserve Polynesia’s biocultural heritage, collaborates with scientists on Mo’orea, yet says ocean conservation depends on a traditional island practice. Photo by Frank Murphy.

The gardeners’ method involves sourcing super corals—those that have demonstrated the ability to recover from or resist a bleaching event or other human-induced stressor—directly from the reef, and then using fragments, or nubbins, to grow those corals in underwater nurseries, on concrete “cookies,” metal coral trees, or ropes. Their nonprofit’s mission to plant 1 million corals is backed by a limited liability company that sells merchandise and allows donors to adopt a coral online, as well as an ambitious social media campaign and list of supporters that includes former Tesla engineer Drew Gray and singer-songwriter Jack Johnson.

Although it seems like a no-brainer that the scientists from the French and American research stations on the island would work with skilled young science communicators, the Coral Gardeners’ recent scientific mentors have been visitors from abroad. Taiano said that he believed the director of CRIOBE was amenable, but that there were—and here he switched from business-speak to surfer—some “haters” at the research station who were afraid that working with the gardeners would pollute their mission.

CRIOBE is made up of a grassy campus of low buildings with green-painted corrugated metal roofs at the apex of ʻŌpūnohu Bay. Massive Mount Rotui towers over the labs; according to one legend, warriors from Raiatea in the Leeward Islands tried to steal the mountain, dragging it with a braided rope toward the sea. Detected by a powerful woman of the island, one of the criminals was turned into a block of coral that still sits in the Papetōʻai reef pass.

The best way to teach young people about the ocean was to take them out at night, so they were forced to use all their senses.

I spoke to a coral specialist at CRIOBE, Laetitia Hédouin, one of the scientists who’d been quoted in the press about the mesophotic reef off Tahiti. Despite the initial reports, she said, the exploratory mission hadn’t “discovered” the reef but had been the first to “study it scientifically.” I asked what she thought of the Coral Gardeners. She acknowledged their success in communicating the plight of reefs to a wide audience but was worried about the impact of the message that by adopting coral, people could help save the reef. “Potentially that money is worth more if it is invested in reducing CO2 emissions. The thing is that for people it’s way more sexy and fun to plant a coral or adopt a coral than to eat less meat or fly less.” But when you mention that at a conference, she said, everyone leaves the room.

Hédouin prefers the term “assisted renovation” to “assisted evolution,” because she doesn’t believe human beings can return the reef to its natural condition. “When you talk about planting coral,” she told me, “the first question is, which area do you want to restore? And why is that area dead? And what are the sources of stress? Are they gone? Is there a natural recruitment of coral because if there is, there is no need to plant coral.” She described the recovery of the coral after the 2010 sea star outbreak and the cyclone as “amazing”; after the 2019 bleaching, however, “the story was different,” and the reef above 10 meters still hadn’t recovered.

Recently Hédouin’s team had been crossfertilizing parent corals that had experienced a bleaching event with those that had never bleached. Using the natural fluorescence of coral tissues—red or green—to count the larvae under fluorescent light, they saw something that surprised them: The bleached coral parents were releasing significantly more red- than green-fluorescing larvae. The distinction was important, because the red fluorescent larvae had the ability to survive up to a week longer at a high temperature than their green siblings and were more prone to swimming longer distances in the pelagic larval phase. Hédouin’s team hypothesized that by releasing more red fluorescent larvae, the bleached parent corals were provisioning their offspring to fight thermal stress, sending a sort of biological message that encouraged them to disperse farther in hopes of finding a more hospitable environment.

It was a fascinating finding; the question was, where were they going to go? “We really need to get out of the lab,” Hédouin told me. Like the Coral Gardeners, her team had multiple coral nurseries in Cook’s and ʻŌpūnohu Bays, including a new one at a depth of 30 meters, in front of the Hilton Hotel. Hédouin envisioned more nurseries at that depth, as a repository for the coral diversity of Moʻorea. “We are very limited in terms of intervention, and so we really need to favor the natural process for recovery and reproduction,” she said. “Planting corals deeper allows you to protect them from bleaching and other threats.” She distinguished between research science and conservation, saying that identifying more resilient coral was instructive for scientists, but in order to conserve reefs, deeper nurseries were going to be crucial. At 30 meters, the coral grew more slowly, but were less likely to be stressed: “It’s a good compromise.”

One bright evening I was sitting outside the Gump dorm with the students in the Island Sustainability Program, eating poisson cru, the typically Tahitian raw fish and vegetables marinated in coconut milk and lime. Flecks of white and orange light hit the dark green bay as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. “Why can’t they collaborate?” asked one young woman, referring to the scientists and the Coral Gardeners. Her question emphasized that the time for territoriality in ecology was gone, and that the scientists were going to have to work with the self-described “small group of island kids”—from French, Māʻohi, and other international backgrounds—who had managed to convince people halfway across the world that they wanted to spend 25 euros to adopt a chunk of Acropora.

This was one of many astute observations I heard from the Berkeley students. At the same time, they were aware that the criticism leveled at scientists who drop in and out of field sites for research could be aimed at them, despite the very place-based course of study they were pursuing on Mo’orea. In the future, Stewart hoped the Island Sustainability Program would expand to include students from the University of French Polynesia and Hawaiʻi, or even Pacific-wide. That seemed crucial to the program’s success, since it was impossible not to notice how few Tahitian or other Indigenous scientists—I met one in the course of my research—have worked at either station, whose history on the island stretches back a half a century.

As the students shared their experiences with me, they mentioned one person whose influence on them during their time in Moʻorea had been indelible. Hinano Teavai-Murphy is president of the community-based Association Te Pu ʻAtitiʻa, which aims to preserve Polynesia’s biocultural heritage; in her long career, she has also taught school and collaborated on numerous film projects, including Disney’s Moana. I’d watched a video of her speaking at the United Nations on World Oceans Day in 2019, telling the Polynesian creation myth of Ru and Hina in a deep, resonant voice, gesturing with her hands. The performance was so mesmerizing that I wasn’t surprised when it was difficult to get an interview. Her husband Frank Murphy, who runs the Tetiaroa Society—the nonprofit that stewards the coral atoll Marlon Brando bought in 1967 after filming Mutiny on the Bounty—sometimes has to act as a gatekeeper, because so many people want to talk to his wife.

CULTURAL LINK: On Mo’orea, the nautilus-shaped Te Fare Natura ecomuseum sits adjacent to the French science lab, CRIOBE. It opened in 2021 with the goal of honoring Polynesia’s cultural and natural history and sharing scientific research with the public. Photo by Nell Freudenberger.

We finally arranged to meet on a warm Tuesday evening at Gump, on the balcony of a hillside bungalow overlooking Cook’s Bay. Although she’d spent the day traveling back and forth to government meetings in Tahiti by ferry, Teavai-Murphy arrived at Gump in a crisp brown-and-white floral suit and traditional woven hat, a strand of luminous black pearls around her neck. We sat at a wooden picnic table drinking mango juice, the acrid smoke from a mosquito coil burning in a frying pan at our feet, and talked about the meaning of the Māʻohi word rāhui.

Teavai-Murphy explained that a rāhui isn’t only a restricted area. It’s also a period of time when “you learn how to save.” You “really sacrifice yourself, your family, your community.” The problem, in her view, was that the occidental concept of a marine protected area—a restricted zone with controversial features like permanent no-take rules for fishing—had been translated in the local government’s planning meetings almost 20 years ago as “rāhui.” “This is where they brought confusion into the minds of the people,” Teavai-Murphy said.

“When you look at the fishermen, he is the one in the water every day. His word is better than the word of the scientists.”

While the original marine-protected areas, or PGEM, blocked off a portion of the zone forever—usually and transparently those directly in front of hotels—a rāhui might be a temporary ban on an area or resource that allowed it to recover. Traditionally, Tahitians sacrificed in what was called the season of scarcity, Matariʻi-i-raro, which began when the Pleiades sank below the horizon in May, to reap the benefits during Matariʻi-i-niʻa, the season of plenty, as soon as the constellation was visible again in November. The imposition and lifting of rāhui—for example, on pelagic fish in the lagoon or on breadfruit from particular trees—was one way in which they had maintained their relationship with the land, and they performed ceremonies to mark those transitions. There was a religious and cultural aspect to rāhui that was absent from the PGEM; without it, Teavai-Murphy said, “the relationship was gone.” After the PGEM was imposed, the fishers who’d attended the government meetings felt that they’d “participated in their own loss.” They stopped coming to the meetings.

“If you respect that cycle, we would never be in trouble today,” Teavai-Murphy said. “You respect the spawning of that fish—you leave that alone. And when there is a time to go out and fish pelagic fish, these are the stars that tell us we can fish bonito.”

The fisher Teiho wasn’t storytelling when he connected the loss of traditional knowledge about lunar cycles to climate change; those cycles were integral to the functioning of rāhui. Scholars believe there were approximately 100,000 people living on Tahiti and Mo’orea in 1767, at the time of first European contact. That population existed comfortably without imports, sustaining their islands’ abundant natural resources through local trade, as well as a complex program of rāhui.

As we were talking, it got dark on the deck; dogs barked, and the forest around the lab came alive with the sound of insects. I had always been taught about the scientific revolution as an enlightenment before which there were only legends. But in Moʻorea I came to think that it isn’t an accident that western science coincided with urbanization, that when people moved into cities, they suddenly required a more attenuated method of understanding the natural world. Over the past week, walking back to my bungalow at night, it had been so dark that I’d sometimes stumbled on the two asphalt tracks that switch-backed up the hill; but if I looked up, I could see the Milky Way more clearly than I ever had before, a deep, celestial latticework that caught the tiny island in a spangled net of stars. I’m not great with constellations, but I could pick out the Pleiades; it made perfect sense that the rising and setting of Matari’i would once have dictated the give and take between human beings and their natural surroundings, because those seven bright stars seemed close enough to touch.

Teavai-Murphy was ambivalent about some of the restoration efforts underway in the lagoon. She was careful to say that she approved of the Coral Gardeners success in publicizing the predicament of coral reefs around the world and was especially enthusiastic about the work they did in local schools, but for her even the name of the organization was problematic. Planting corals, she felt, suggested that “you can go on doing what you’re doing, because we have the solution. Really for me this is the wrong idea about doing conservation. It’s an insult to our ecosystem.” She supported the scientists at Gump and CRIOBE but believed that their efforts at assisted renovation were something “for the lab;” in the lagoon, the delicate balance of rāhui needed to be reimplemented.

“Now we are moving toward a process of rāhui,” Teavai-Murphy said. Since 2016, the PGEM has undergone a collective revision process; at the same time, the grassroots Association Rāhui has been working to create a new plan for resource management, but the process was fractious, with a byzantine collection of local organizations involved. Two successful rāhui were working in Tahiti, though, on the remote southeastern tip of the island called Fenua ‘Aihere (literally, “uncultivated land”). One rāhui was completely closed to marine activities for renewable three-year periods, while another operated with rotational fishing limits around a closed puna, or source, with the goal of preserving coral and reef species. The rāhui were managed by tōmite: committees that included fishers, government officials, local conservationists, and religious leaders, who emphasized the importance of passing the sacred elements of rāhui to the next generation.

Historically residents of the area had mistrusted scientists, both because of the traumatic history of colonization and the very contemporary fear that conservationists were out to sabotage fishers’ livelihoods. But more recent efforts were getting a warmer welcome. After a team from CRIOBE began showing up to learn from residents about rāhui, the residents not only tolerated but appreciated the scientists’ ecological inspections of the sites. One Taiarapu mother expressed her hope that someday “maybe our children could work with them, in collaboration.”

One crucial element of the rāhui is that they be monitored by local people, to prevent fishing where it isn’t allowed. A paper by Pauline Fabre whose co-authors include noted Pacific Studies scholars Tamatoa Bambridge and Alexander Mawyer, quotes a Teahupo’o resident describing a local grandmother and her grandchildren, who have started conscientiously reporting infractions on the area protected as a rāhui: “When they see [an infraction on the rāhui], they call the city hall.”

Teavai-Murphy stressed that these rāhui were not an uncritical return to an ancient practice, which had been hierarchical: A group of breadfruit trees might be encircled with banana leaves to prohibit harvesting until a chief’s lavish wedding feast. Management by committee and monitoring by residents on the ground had not only shifted priorities from postponed consumption to reef resilience but had made the new rāhui more democratic.

I mentioned to Teavai-Murphy the account of the tupuna, the grandfathers who had spearfished down to the mesophotic reef. “When you look at the fishermen, he is the one in the water every day,” Teavai-Murphy said. “His word is better than the word of the scientists or of the police.” Her voice deepened with emotion as she remembered a revered elder, Yves Teihotata, known as Papa Mape, an expert in traditional lunar cycles, astronavigation, and the island’s vast catalog of birds, fish, and plants. He maintained that the best way to teach young people about the ocean was to take them out at night, so they were forced to use all their senses. “He was a scientist of the ocean,” she said.

Maybe Stewart was right that Moʻorea didn’t need any more scientists because it had had them all along; or maybe there was a place for Western science inside the parameters of rāhui, enforced by a grandmother with her eyes on the lagoon.

Nell Freudenberger is the author of three novels, most recently Lost and Wanted, and the short story collection, Lucky Girls. Her fiction and nonfiction has been published in the New Yorker, Harpers, and The New York Times.

Lead image: A coral reef that resembles roses off the coast of Mo’orea. Credit: UNESCO / Alexis Rosenfeld