Our day started with the majority of us waking up right around 5:30 to experience the calm sunrise, full of anticipation for the day ahead. Around 8:00 we made our way to the boat ramp where we met the fishermen who would be taking us on their boats. Before heading out we had an introduction on how to handline, something most of us had never done before. We split our group into the two boats and motored out about a mile into the reef, only to discover we had forgotten the weights for the handlines. Luckily we were rescued by the Ngarchelong State Rangers who delivered us with plenty of weights. Before we even got a line in the water we noticed a Hawksbill Sea Turtle not too far from the boat.
We baited our hooks, and dropped them to about 90 feet. Before any luck on our lines, the first fish of the day jumped straight into one of the boats! It only took a couple of minutes before the first tug on the line. Jen had the distinction of catching the first fish, and we all watched with anticipation to see what she was going to pull in. As it approached the surface we saw its dark orange color, and after getting it in the boat, it was identified as an Emperor. No one could wipe the smile from their face, and before long, others started hooking into fish.
We only had a couple of hours to spend on the water, but quickly, we found ourselves with a cooler full of 13 fish. There were a couple of fish that had to be released; Allie caught an amazing 2 ½ foot Shark Sucker, Jake caught a small Camouflage Grouper as well as a massive chunk of coral. The fish that were kept included multiple species of Emperor, Sabre Squirrelfish, Red Snapper, Midnight Snapper, and a Black Banded Snapper.
We headed back to land around 11:00, and met around the fish cleaning station for a lesson by the fishing guides who took us on the water. We learned about the digital fish measuring system which collects data of fish caught to be used for research by The Nature Conservancy, helping to monitor the status of the species in the area. We also had a discussion on other methods of determining fisheries health.
It was now time to get our hands dirty! We broke out the scalers to remove the scales from our fish, followed by gutting. Cleaning our own fish allowed us to gain a deeper appreciation for these animals, and made our dinner that much tastier. After cleaning up the station, we gathered up our fish and headed back for some much needed lunch.
Lunch consisted of fried chicken, fresh apples and oranges, rice and taro. After fueling up, we journeyed over the hill to a taro field where we met with Ann Singeo and Rose, a mechas who has spent many years working in the taro fields. She graciously shared her wealth of knowledge, and invited us to join her in her taro patch. Carefully making our way through the muddy paths created by the irrigation channels, we circled the taro patch and the women were instructed in how to harvest the taro. Gender roles restrict men from working the fields, as they have always been managed by women. It was an incredible privilege for the men in our group to be allowed to even step foot in the field. While the women harvested taro, the men observed the diversity in the field and the intentionality in the surrounding forest which was cultivated with the community, and children especially, in mind. The taro fields are traditionally very communal, with the women sharing labor and coming together to work and support each other. Great importance is placed on introducing younger generations, and encouraging young women in continuing the culture.
One aspect of the taro fields we greatly admired is the irrigation system and the methods used to ensure equal access to water. There is a main irrigation channel surrounding the field, which is diverted and returned to the river; each taro patch is surrounded by channels which also act as safe walkways to prevent harming the young taro plants. Taro requires a specific amount of saturation to cultivate the highest quality taro. Too much water can cause rotting, too little and it will dry out and most likely won’t survive. Many times, the woman chief would have her patch at the bottom corner of the field to regulate water use. If the chief’s patch was not receiving adequate water, she would ask the women, “where’s my water?” and they would all work to fix the issue to avoid getting penalized. In this way, she ensures equality in access to resources.
Before leaving the taro field, we walked around the perimeter to take it all in one last time. We walked back to Ebiil Society where we were instructed on how to scrape the taro and prepare it for our dinner that night.
Afterwards, we enjoyed some free time. Some of us chose to snorkel, others paddle boarded to the mangrove forests, and a few enjoyed some much needed rest. We gathered for dinner, and enjoyed the fruits of our labor. The fish we caught was served with a delicious sauce, and the taro was cooked in coconut milk. They also provided rice, fried taro leaves, and a sweet tapioca dessert.
The evening ended with an opportunity to talk about fisheries management with traditional fishing expert Tino. Ann provided some context for his lifelong experiences with the ocean and fishing, sharing stories about his passion for the marine environment and conveying his extensive knowledge of Palau’s marine systems. We were able to ask any questions we had and to have an open conversation about changes to the fisheries over time, conservation, policies, and the challenges in management they are working to address. He ended the conversation by extending an open invitation to reach out to him at any time during our stay with any other questions we may have, and an offer to share his knowledge of Palau’s marine life.
It had been a long and eventful day full of new experiences, and though it had been a great time, our energy had run out. After Tino left, we all quickly found our beds, hoping to get plenty of rest and prepare ourselves for the next day’s adventures.