Pismo Beach helps Polynesians preserve their paradise

Huahine residents Matania Francois, center, and Axel Roo, right, meet with Shell Beach resident Marc Lebed.
Huahine residents Matania Francois, center, and Axel Roo, right, meet with Shell Beach resident Marc Lebed. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

About three years ago, a local fisherman started taking note of some startling changes in the lagoon around Huahine, an island in French Polynesia.

Some of the fish were smaller and had decreased in number, but people were continuing to catch them. And there was debris: Trash, tires and even larger items such as a toilet had been discarded in the ocean as well as in the rainforest.

The Polynesian fisherman, Pitori Gibert, brought his concerns — and his desire to do something about the problem — to Marc Lebed, a retired heath care arbitrator who along with his wife, Catrina, live part of the year in Shell Beach and part on Huahine, located about 100 miles from Tahiti.

“He wanted to establish a preservation society and asked how we do it here,” said Lebed, who serves as president of the Dinosaur Caves Preservation Society.

Gibert and other locals founded an association called “Paruru te tairoto o Haapu,” which translates to “Protect/preserve the nature of Haapu,” that is the first and only completely self-sustaining, indigenous preservation society in French Polynesia, Lebed said. It was recognized by the federal government last year.

In January, the Pismo Beach City Council recognized the Polynesians’ conservation efforts with a proclamation pledging a partnership between the city, the village of Haapu and the island of Huahine “to commit to a mutual continued effort to promote natural resource preservation in their respective communities.”

The organization’s association with an American city could help it obtain grant funding from the French government to continue restoration efforts, Lebed said.

Two residents of Huahine, Matania Francois and Axel Roo, flew to California to receive the proclamation.

“You could see this lack of fish,” said Francois, 35. “If we don’t preserve our island, what will happen to our children?”

Much work has taken place on the lush, rugged island over the past few years (Huahine is actually two islands, connected by a bridge). Efforts have focused on preserving the lagoon that encircles the island; cleaning up and preserving the land; and preserving the Polynesian culture.

Volunteers have cleared away debris to improve views, built picnic tables (which resemble those found at Dinosaur Caves Park in Shell Beach), installed trash cans, started a recycling program and installed five signs with more information about fishing restrictions and other ways to help the environment.

The fishing restrictions have helped restore habitat for crabs and other sea life, Lebed said. That’s wonderful news for local residents, who supplement their diet of fruits and vegetables grown on plantations with fresh shellfish, ahi and yellowtail.

They’re extremely warm, generous people, who have embraced Lebed and his wife as family. When Pismo Beach Mayor Shelly Higginbotham and her husband visited the island last October, the local residents held a daylong celebration with traditional food and dance.

“That’s how we live in the islands — we give,” Francois said.