Nikumaroro is one of the wildest places left on the planet. On the island, I encountered thriving seabird colonies, eels lunging from the lagoon-edge like crocodiles to drag crabs from the sand… I even faced-off (and backed down from) a terrier-sized coconut crab that I met on a jungle trail. But forget all of that—something else I saw on that island stays with me today, and affected the course of my life.
The first time one lays eyes on a place like Nikumaroro, the inevitable thought is some version of: we truly have reached the ends of the earth. Our voyage was a research transect through The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), in the island nation of Kiribati [pronounced Kee-ree-bas]. For the expedition, Sea Education Association had obtained a rare permit to collect some very rare data in PIPA—the world’s second largest marine reserve after the Ross Sea in Antarctica. With a full-on research agenda and several island stops slated for the expedition, there were plenty of reasons to be excited about the cruise plan (including a stop at Millennium Atoll, shown below), but the allure of Nikumaroro and the Amelia Earhart mystery was palpable amongst the crew.
Think about the furthest you’ve ever been from civilization. 100 miles? 500 miles? The Pacific Ocean is about 12,000 across at its widest—4X the size of the US—and Nikumaroro is a speck right out in the middle. It’s no wonder so few have had the opportunity to lay eyes on the remote Atoll. The question stirring our thoughts was: Did Amelia?
For those unfamiliar with the story, it is thought that the renowned aviator, Amelia Earhart, might have landed on the dry reef of the island after running off-course from her planned route to Howland Island, some 500 miles to the northwest. Aerial photos of *possible* landing gear on Nikumaroro and triangulated radio transmissions support this theory. Even though the recent press-generating expedition to Niku didn’t turn up Amelia, her plane, or bring closure to the mystery, I still believe there is a more important story here, and one that has not been told in the press. Keep reading.
Arrival morning, I had the good-fortune of being on the first lifeboat ashore. The only beach access on Niku is a narrow coral groove, just wide enough for an inflatable, but given the tide, it was decided that swimming the channel would be safest. Moments after I leapt from the boat and started for shore, I heard the raft’s outboard sputter and then the message on the radio: “headed back to the ship to check out this engine issue”. Unexpectedly marooned, I spent the day wandering the fabled island--in search of its mysteries--alone.
The nature was raw and amazing. Blue-footed boobies on the beach barely batted a wing as I passed by. In the lagoon, blacktip reef shark pups circled my feet to investigate me before gliding off in search of a more appropriate meal. The thriving coral and giant clams glowed with phosphorescent zooxanthellae (tiny, colorful plant cells that live in the tissues of most corals). The coconut crabs were goliath and utterly terrifying, partly because I was wearing flip flops and they seemed keenly aware that they were faster and stronger than I was... Finally, the previously mentioned white moray eels hunting on the beach? Seriously? That sight felt like something out of Jurassic Park, even for a marine biologist (*P.S. I’ve not heard of that behavior documented anywhere, to date).
It was when I reached the North side of the Atoll that Nikumaroro showed me something that I needed to see and something that was a repeated narrative on the other islands we explored on the expedition. Here, at the ends of the earth, in the center of a marine protected area the size of the United States, there were lighters, bottles, and other plastic debris, as well as abandoned fishing nets, buoys, and floats. A woman’s shoe lay on the sand: Amelia? No. Rubber sole, made in China. When I saw a shark in the pristine reef with a hook jutting from its mouth, in the beating heart of this marine protected area, something changed deep inside me.
I believe that the seas hold the key to sustainably feeding the planet for the next 50, 100, 1000 years. It’s the reason I dedicated my life to understanding both global fisheries and sustainable aquaculture--the farming of marine resources--which has become the fastest growing global food industry. Fishing isn’t the problem. Illegal, unreported, and unmonitored fishing is, which allows the flow of seafood from socially inequitable and environmentally destructive sources straight to your dinner plate. The seas have a tremendous capacity to produce healthy, sustainable food without consuming freshwater or agricultural products, but we have mismanaged our marine resources and time is running out to correct our wrongs.
After PIPA, I had several weeks of sailing to ponder lessons learned on the Central Pacific before we concluded our expedition in American Samoa. By the time we made land, I had decided to leave research science. Research plays an important role in helping us to understand the planet, and makes suggestions for preserving it. However, the power to turn those suggestions into meaningful change is in the hands of each and every person that casts a ‘vote’ with their behavior and purchasing decisions. The seafood industry has long been a black box of poor information, leaving most consumers either struggling to understand what’s ‘good’ or avoiding fish entirely because of common misconceptions. In reality, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more sustainable food on earth than a wild or farmed seaweed, and there is no animal protein that compares to sustainable fish in terms of resource intensity. If we can fix the ills of recent decades and restore a healthy relationship with the ocean, the future is Blue. But it takes the efforts of individuals, and the efforts of many.
Leaving a career and putting together a dedicated team to build a brand and products around this Mission hasn’t been easy, but it has always felt right. OneForNeptune’s mission is to restore mankind’s healthy relationship with the Sea. We seek to set an example with traceability, verifiably sustainable sourcing, minimization of waste, and a product that is really, truly good. We can have our fish and eat them too. As with reducing our energy consumption, plastic use, and overall footprint. It just takes mindfulness.
Nicolas E. Mendoza
Founder & CEO, OneForNeptune