Dreaming of a Protected Ocean
A man, standing, uses a microphone to speak to groups of seated youth

On Saipan Island, Chamorro activist Angelo Villagomez speaks to students and business owners about ocean conservation across the Pacific region.

Photo courtesy of Angelo Villagomez

On Saipan Island, Chamorro activist Angelo Villagomez speaks to students and business owners about ocean conservation across the Pacific region.

Photo courtesy of Angelo Villagomez

A white sand beach

Saipan is the capital island of the 14 Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific. Just miles offshore is the Mariana Trench, which at 7 miles below sea level is the deepest point on Earth.

Photo courtesy of Angelo Villagomez

Saipan is the capital island of the 14 Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific. Just miles offshore is the Mariana Trench, which at 7 miles below sea level is the deepest point on Earth.

Photo courtesy of Angelo Villagomez

As a boy growing up on Saipan, I used to dream of the ocean. I dreamed of a bounty of yellow, red, blue and green fish darting over mounds of brightly colored coral. These visions of the daytime hours I spent in the water rolled and bobbed in my mind throughout the night. The ocean was my playground, my teacher and a place to catch fish.

Since then, the ocean of my childhood has changed. The marine environment has been ravaged by industrial fishing fleets, plastic pollution as well as rising sea levels and warming waters due to climate change—all outgrowths of colonialism. Now the fish are smaller and fewer, and many of the sharks, turtles and corals have vanished. To help heal ocean ecosystems around the world, Indigenous communities such as my Chamorro people are working with governments and philanthropic partners to combine our ancient knowledge and values with modern ocean conservation measures that can safeguard these precious ecosystems and the living resources within them.

All aspects of our unique way of life, of knowing and being, of how to survive as an islander, are derived from our big ocean and humble islands. We begin training to be fishers from an early age.

My father, a “talayeru” (throw-net fisherman), learned his trade from his father and older brothers. When I was old enough to wade in waist-deep water, I was allowed to follow him, carrying his faded black fish bag. When I was strong and adept enough to swim in the pounding surf, he invited me to help retrieve the fish from his net, and I handed the task of carrying the fish bag off to my younger brother.

Dad taught me not only how to catch fish, but also which small, young fish should be returned to the sea to be able to grow and reproduce. During midnight walks through the jungle he taught me to never take an “ayuyu” (coconut crab) when she is carrying eggs. He also taught me to ask permission of our “taotaomo’na” (our ancestors) to enter certain lands and to “man nginge” (show respect to) our elders to ask them to share their wisdom and blessings.

These lessons are how I learned “respetu,” a word that means in essence “respect” and that was derived from the Spanish “respeto” but unique to Chamorro people, as it encompasses honoring our ancestors, our culture, our land and our ocean. I also learned “inafa’maolek,” which translated literally means “making good” but applies to many things, including striving for harmony with ourselves, with others and with the environment.

My father, newly returned from years abroad earning his law degree (only the second Chamorro to do so), was one of the delegates our people elected in 1976 to write our constitution and create our local government after the Covenant was established. He purposely included aspects of both “respetu” and “inafa’maolek” in our founding documents. Article I, Section 9 of our constitution promises that “each person has a right to a clean and healthful public environment in all areas, including the land, air and water.”

The values of “inafa’maolek” and “respetu” are the reasons why I dedicate my life to protecting my islands’ Mariana Trench. I can see Dad nodding to the peak of Mount Tapochau at the center of our island, saying while grinning, “We are standing on the tallest mountain on Earth.” His rough hands busy sorting bright netted fish, he drops the punch line, “Mariana Trench is deeper than Mount Everest is tall.” At its deepest point, it stretches nearly 7 miles below sea level, the deepest chasm on Earth. More than 1,500 miles in length, the crescent-shaped trench and surrounding waters are home to a vast array of marine life ranging from coral reefs to volcanic hydrothermal vents, abyssal plains and underwater mountains called seamounts.  The waters in the trench and around the islands north of Saipan are some of the last global havens teeming with tunas, sharks, turtles and whales, not to mention unquantified, undiscovered creatures in the deep.

President George W. Bush designated the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument in 2009, protecting an ocean area about the size of Denmark around three of our northern islands from commercial fishing and banning deep-sea mining inside the trench itself. This would never have happened without the guidance of the Friends of the Mariana Trench, an organization founded by Indigenous leaders including Cinta Kaipat, Ignacio Cabrera, Agnes McPhetres, Andrew Salas and myself, who advocated and explained modern conservation policies to island communities deeply skeptical of U.S. government intentions. We spent months listening to our elders and had conversations with thousands of community members, from school children to lawmakers.

During the 15 years since designation, the Friends of the Mariana Trench continue to work with local communities, governments and nonprofit organizations to advocate for the active conservation of the Mariana Trench. We have seen mixed results for both our ocean and community, as too many decisions on how to manage the monument are still made in federal offices in Honolulu, nearly 4,000 miles away.

Our ancestors, voyagers who sailed across the vast ocean in “sahguans” (wooden canoes), plied the seas using the most advanced technology available at the time—hulls carved from breadfruit trees, sails woven from pandanus leaves and lines made from coconut fibers—as well as courage to tackle the impossible. Today our people do the same, but our tools are marine protected areas, fisheries management and federal-to-territorial negotiations.

At night I still dream of the ocean. But now in my dreams, my people use the wisdom and values of our ancestors as well as modern tools to nurture an ocean full of fish and free of plastic. And when I wake up, energized by dreams of colorful fish, I roll out of bed to see my father’s eyes looking back at me in the bathroom mirror. I promise him, just as he promised his father, “Let’s go make some good.”