Changing Planet

Rapa Expedition: An Ancient Secret for Protecting the Future

After days of foul weather, the clouds have parted and the Hanse Explorer has arrived at Rapa Iti, the site of the latest National Geographic Pristine Seas expedition. As the science team prepares for their first dives to survey the biodiversity hidden under the waves surrounding this remote southern island, our Pew partner, Jerome Petit, shares some thoughts about Rapa’s approach to marine conservation.

Jerome has extensive experience working in the Austral Islands of French Polynesia, and is our main lead into the Rapa community. He also survived the great cross-island hike adventure (which I wrote about in yesterday’s post). Here he discusses what he’s learned about rahui, the ancient Polynesian concept being used to protect wild places today.

By Jerome Petit, Pew Global Ocean Legacy

Rapa is a little world by itself. The island has very limited exchanges with the exterior, with only one boat coming every second month.

People in Rapa sing Rapa music, listen to Rapa radio, and eat almost only Rapa meat, fish, and organic vegetables. After a few days in Rapa, we have almost forgotten that there is a wider planet around us.

This sensation of finitude and the clear boundaries of Rapa’s system have encouraged Rapa people to manage their island in a particularly sustainable way over the years. Before contact with outside populations (and diseases) in the 19th century, Polynesian human densities were rather high in Rapa, with up to 2000 people living on this small island. The situation was similar in other islands throughout the region, and was possibly a driver in the development of certain uses of rahui, the practice of setting aside an area of land or water not to be visited or taken from for a certain amount of time. While the full concept has had many uses and meanings, in its modern application on Rapa, rahui is most significantly a program for the sustainable management of marine resources.

Rapa rises above the waves but captures atmospheric moisture in its mountainous embrace, creating a cloudy cap that hides its highest peaks from view. (Photo by Manu San Felix)

How We Got Here

I have been working as the Director of the Pew Charitable Trusts office in French Polynesia for one year. We work with a small team in Papeete, Tahiti to help the local government implement its commitment to protect at least 20 percent of the French Polynesian waters by 2020.

We have been invited by the government to work in the Austral Islands (which include Rapa) and we are elaborating a marine reserve proposal for the archipelago in collaboration with local authorities, fishermen, scientists, and local associations. We have been working with communities in Rimatara, Rurutu, Raivavae, and Tubuai (the four other Austral islands) for several months and the municipalities of these islands have already voted a declaration calling for the designation of a large-scale marine reserve in the Austral Islands waters. National Geographic proposed we join forces to go to Rapa, the last island of the Austral archipelago. This expedition is a great opportunity for our team (Poema Du Prel and myself) to meet the Rapa community and improve our understanding of rahui.

Representatives gather inside for a Community Meeting, but the enforcement of rahui comes largely in the individual choices made by each inhabitant of the island when out in the world. (Photo courtesy Paul Rose)
Representatives gather inside for a Community Meeting, but the enforcement of rahui comes largely in the individual choices made by each inhabitant of the island when out in the world. (Photo courtesy Paul Rose)

How Rahui Works

We have been talking and learning about rahui since our arrival to Rapa three days ago and it looks like we have only explored the surface of this well of traditional knowledge.

The Rahui protects the Eastern coastal area of the island, where fishing nets and spear fishing are not allowed. These areas serve as nurseries for sustainable fishing in the Western part of the island. A Rahui Committee of nine members is elected every two years and can decide to expand or reduce the size of the protection zone according to the available resources.

The Rahui is opened to fishing for one day twice a year, when Rapa students come back from Tahiti for vacation. Fish caught during these days are distributed to the whole population according to the number of members in each family.

The Pristine Seas science team is working under the approval of the Rahui Committee and begins their work by catching and releasing freshwater eels along the coast. (Photo by Manu San Felix)
The Pristine Seas science team is working under the approval of the Rahui Committee and begins their work by catching and releasing huge freshwater eels along the coast. (Photo by Manu San Felix)


The Rahui is a very sacred notion, with a strong link to religion. The local priest opens and closes the Rahui season with a prayer and, according to a member of the Rahui Committee, “God protects the Rahui; when a fisherman does not respect the rule, his engine can break down or fall in the ocean.”

Beside God’s cooperation, the Rahui is so effective in Rapa because it is based on community management and enforcement. A vice mayor of Rapa told us that “there is no legal text supporting the Rahui; it is only a traditional custom operated locally,” but according to him “this is why it actually works that well.” Our discussions with the Rapa municipality council this morning were very positive and there is a great interest here in creating a large-scale marine reserve in the Austral Islands waters, in full articulation with the Rahui along Rapa’s coasts.

What Rahui Can Teach Us All

Using ancient principles, Rapa people were able to put together a very efficient way to manage their limited resources in a sustainable way, for the benefits of the whole population. Unfortunately at the planet level, humanity has not been able and is still not able to do the same. Almost 90 percent of fish stocks are depleted or over exploited globally and less than 3 percent of the oceans are protected. Like Rapa, our planet is our island, and it has limited resources. We clearly need to find clever compromises collectively to manage our resources sustainable if we want to keep our world healthy and inhabitable for future generations.

So this small island has a lot to offer the ocean. The Rahui can serve as a model of sustainable management and participative conservation in other places. And hopefully, the designation of a large-scale marine reserve in the Austral archipelago can be a significant step forward to the long-term preservation of our oceans worldwide.


Read All Posts From the Rapa 2014 Expedition

Learn More About Pristine Seas

Worldwide Voyage Using Traditional Polynesian Navigation


The Pristine Seas expedition to Rapa is sponsored by Blancpain and Davidoff Cool Water.

Paul Rose is an ardent explorer, television presenter, journalist, author, and Vice President of the Royal Geographical Society, and an Expedition Leader on the Pristine Seas team.
  • gabriela Layi

    Great to hear how well the Rahui works in Rapa. We need that kind of trust to create more sustainable fishing management in Hawaii. it seems the larger the population the greater the disconnect between man and natural resources.

  • Cam Watson

    I found this story whilst researching Rapa Iti. I have been to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands a couple of times, and can say that without the Rahui there the tourist industry would suffer. It doesn’t just work for harvesting natural resources. Good work Rapans.

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