More than just a playground, the ocean supports life
Hundreds flocked to the Civic Center in Susupe last Saturday to take part in the first ever Ocean Fair on island, organized by the Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality to celebrate the CNMI Ocean Month of June.
The fair featured booths from Micronesia Islands Nature Alliance, Friends of the Mariana Trench, Northern Mariana College–Cooperative Research, Extension, and Education Services, the Sea Turtle Program of the Department of Lands and Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, BECQ, and the Commonwealth Council for Arts and Culture.
“The ocean is a big part of our culture. As island communities, the ocean is super important to us because it’s a source of our economy, sustenance, recreation. It supports our tourism, which obviously is one of the largest economic drivers in the CNMI,” said Janice Castro, Coastal Resources Management director, who added that the fair is meant to give community members an opportunity to experience, or use the ocean resource in ways that they do not or would not do normally.
Castro added that they want to ensure that the community knows how important the ocean is beyond just being a place to swim and have picnics during the weekends—the ocean is “more than just a playground”; it is a source of food for the table and supports the island economically.
“In taking care of the [ocean’s] health, not just the quality of the water, we want to make sure that the marine life in there are healthy too so that they all balance each other. They need each other, just the way that we need it.”
Protecting marine species
One of the marine lives that badly need to be protected are turtles, which, based on the last estimates of the CNMI Sea Turtle Program, now only run between 55 and 65 in numbers, with only about 12 turtles that come to nest here every year.
According to Endangered Species Program manager Lisa Sztukowski, sea turtles are a part of the local culture in that people used to eat them for special occasions. Now, however, the taking of any sea turtle of any size class is against the law, with fines and penalties ranging from $5,000 to $25,000, and up to six months imprisonment.
“It’s illegal to harass turtles. It’s illegal to have parts of them, and it’s illegal to hunt them. …If we want sea turtles to be part of the CNMI culture, we need to protect them. It’s not only federal but also locally. It’s very important because we have a small population that nests on the islands.”
Anyone who sees turtles being harassed, or for those who have any information of poaching incidents should call the CNMI Sea Turtle Hotline at 287-8537.
Sztukowski shared the plight of Wake Island as an example. During World War II, the Japanese on island, cut off from their food, began eating albatrosses and sea turtles, which then disappeared from the island. To this day, she added, no sea turtles have been found nesting on the island.
“Once they’re gone, they’re pretty much gone forever. It’s very important to protect the future…if we want them on the island, for cultural purposes [and] also economic, because they bring a lot of the tourism. They’re very important to the islands.”
It’s in the culture
Aside from the educational booths, ocean activities were also offered at the Saipan Ocean Fair last Saturday. Community members, especially children, got treated to a day of free canoe rides, standup paddling, swimming, snorkeling, and talaya lessons, from the Marianas Outriggers Club, the NMI Paddle Sports Federation, and Swim for Life, among many others.
Billy Grow of the Marianas Outrigger Club, who was one of the volunteers giving the children free canoe riding lessons, stressed the importance of passing on ocean knowledge and experience to the next generations.
“Canoeing is in our culture, outrigger is in our culture, and we want to be able to pass this on. It’s only as good as the knowledge we pass on to every generation,” he said.
Grow added that if people keep taking the ocean for granted and it becomes polluted, no one will be able to use and enjoy it. “Everybody is responsible, everybody’s a custodian. We’re all in this together. We all live on the same island chain and we’re only as strong as our weakest point, so if everybody’s together, everything works.”
The Ocean Fair will also be held on Tinian this Saturday, June 19, from 11am to 3pm, at the Jones Beach-Fiesta Ground; and on Rota on Saturday, June 26, from 8am to 2pm, at Teteto Beach. This event is free and open to the public. For additional information about the Ocean Fair, contact Colleen Flores at email@example.com or at 664-8300/16.