Words of the Lagoon

Words of the Lagoon: Fishing and Marine Lore in the Palau District of Micronesia, R.E. Johannes, 1981

  • Palau, #1
  • Borrowed from SF Library
  • Read March 2017
  • Rating: 3.5/5
  • Recommended for: specific generalists

For a book that contains an entire chapter devoted to descriptions of fishhooks, this was a surprisingly interesting read. I was expecting a collection of folk tales told by Palauan fishermen; instead I found a carefully researched work on reef fish behavior. It may be simply that this book lies at the exact intersection of several of my interests (being, as I am, a travel-addicted book-loving marine biologist), but I found it clearer and more engaging than many of the works of fiction I’ve encountered in this project so far.

Seychelles, 2007

In the 1970s, tropical marine ecologist Bob Johannes set out to document the traditional knowledge of Palauan fishermen about the behavior and biology of the fish in the waters around Palau. It was a fairly radical idea at the time, and other scientists laughed at him—science so often being far too quick to reject any idea not generated in a laboratory and published in a peer-reviewed journal—but Johannes reasoned that the people of Palau, who for most of history had depended on fish for their survival, had spent their entire lives, for generations, following fish, catching fish, and learning about fish. Traditional fishermen in Palau spent decades perfecting their craft, and could not be considered masters until they were well into middle age. A marine biologist could never hope to gain such extensive and specific knowledge about such a wide range of species even over the course of a career. And Johannes’s idea turned out to be a sound one; he collected vast amounts of new information about spawning and feeding behavior, enough to prompt decades worth of further study. His publication of Words of the Lagoonhelped highlight the importance of indigenous knowledge and community-based systems as key factors in marine conservation.” Besides straightforward fish biology, Johannes also explored the ways in which the interruption of traditional fishing practices and law have directly impacted marine conservation in Palau (most notably during the Japanese occupation of the country during WWII, when the reefs were massively overfished to feed the new influx of people, and hyper-local tribal laws which would have conserved marine resources for future generations were superseded by the invading force; post-occupation the availability of cheap imported goods and the devastation of the reefs made traditional fishing financially unviable, leading to a loss of knowledge in younger generations and a vicious feedback loop resulting in more and more overfishing and rapid declines in marine resources). It’s now considered a seminal work in the field and is still used as a graduate-level text in “fisheries, ocean policy, and maritime anthropology courses around the world.” For the lay reader it is perhaps not uniformly fascinating (I have to admit I skipped the fishhook chapter), but I think it does contain enough in the way of colorful anecdotes, lucid journalism, and accessible science writing to make it interesting to a general audience.

Seychelles, 2007

3 thoughts on “Words of the Lagoon

  1. This sounds really interesting to me as well. I am often fascinated by the details of things. Also I like biology and oceans. And conveniently, I see that I have yet to pick a book for Palau. I may or may not read the fishhook chapter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know how I missed this when you left it! Let me know if you end up reading this and what you think (or of course, if you write a blog post about it I’ll find out that way). I hope I haven’t oversold it. 😉


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