Mariana Archipelago: Historical Overview of the Fisheries

Prehistoric Chamoru harvested sea turtles, shellfish and invertebrates and likely sharks and dolphins. Under Spanish colonization in the 1600s, destruction of large canoes and canoe houses led to the loss of pelagic fishing. By the mid-19th century only 24 outrigger canoes remained on Guam for fishing inside the reef only. Under European colonization, the number of Chamoru in the Mariana Archipelago was drastically reduced from an estimated 40,000 persons in the late 17th century to about 1,500 persons a hundred years later. Inshore fishing for invertebrates and reef fish and reef gleaning were the main means for obtaining marine protein.

Refaluwasch (Carolinians) settled on Saipan in the 1840s. They are known for their seafaring and fishing skills. Fishing centered on lagoon and reef species. They sometimes paddled small canoes to fish a short distance outside the reef.

After the US acquired Guam in 1898, it held training programs to encourage local residents to participate in offshore commercial fishing. However, the native people lacked the capital to purchase and maintain large enough boats, so inshore fishing continued to be a subsistence base for native people. During the Japanese rule (1914–1944), the Chamoru and Refaluwasch continued to rely heavily on subsistence use of inshore species. After WWII, the US military assisted several Guam villages to develop an inshore commercial net and trap fishery. Wage work enabled some fishermen to acquire small boats with outboard engines and other equipment for offshore fishing. The first year a pelagic species was included in a catch report to the postwar Guam civilian government was 1956. As late as the 1970s, relatively few people in Guam fished offshore, even on the protected leeward side of the island, because boats and deep-sea fishing equipment were too expensive for most people. In the 1970s, a group of Vietnamese refugees on Guam fished commercially for reef fish, bottomfish, tuna and mackerel. The Guam Fishermen’s Cooperative Association began operations during that time. Until the co-op established a small marketing facility at the Public Market in Agana, fishermen were forced to make their own individual marketing arrangements after returning from fishing trips. In 1980, the co-op acquired a chill box and ice machine, and emphasized wholesaling. Today, the co-op’s membership includes more than 180 full-time and part-time fishermen, and it processes and markets (retail and wholesale) an estimated 80% of the local commercial catch. In CNMI, several boats over 25 feet in length were actively engaged in commercial fishing by 1980, primarily for bottomfish and pelagic species. However, most of the fishermen in the Mariana Archipelago continue to harvest primarily for subsistence, barter and cultural sharing purposes, such as for fiestas and food exchanges with family and friends.