Rāhui and the Art of Marine Conservation
In French Polynesia, an ancient practice puts everyone in charge of protecting the sea.
Located in a quiet part of Tahiti, in French Polynesia, the village of Tautira sits on the ocean’s edge, framed by black sand beaches and a turquoise lagoon. With a population of just over 2,500, Tautira is known as the “village at the end of the road.”
Beyond it is the island’s last truly wild coastline, accessible only on foot or by boat. Tautira is the kind of place where everyone is a “cousin,” “aunty,” or “uncle”; smiles are generous; and kids play soccer on the street. Some families here still live off the land, selling fish, fruits, and vegetables by the road to make ends meet.
On a balmy day in May 2023, for the first time in four years, the lagoon in Tautira saw the return of its apex predator. A group of about 50 local fishers, armed with fishing lines and spearguns, gathered at the marina at midday and pulled out coolers laden with their catches: crimson-red, bulging-eyed blotcheye soldierfish; green-and-blue-hued parrotfish the length of a man’s arm, and unicornfish with their distinctive hornlike noses. Over two mornings, the fishers caught around one tonne of fish—equal to more than 2,500 individual fish. Just five years ago, fishers would have been lucky to get that many fish in one week. The impressive catch was a testament to an ancient eastern Polynesian practice, known as rāhui, that might just be a key to developing sustainable, community-led solutions in Tahiti’s depleted coastal ecosystems.
A rāhui is, in essence, an area of land or water with a temporary limit on collecting a resource, such as a particular fish or fruit. In time, once the resource has had time to replenish, the rāhui is lifted. The word rāhui has many meanings in Polynesia. It can refer to a management system, a practice, a place, a belief, a law, or a lens through which related actions are assessed.
The concept of rāhui has existed in Polynesia—the more than 1,000 islands from New Zealand in the southwest, to Hawai‘i in the north, to Tahiti in the southeast—since before Europeans arrived in the South Pacific. These islands share similar languages and cultures and enjoy a long history of trade and connection.