The Fish We Ate An Interview with Mamie-Jean Lamley

For those who grew up on an island, the idea of finite resources, of living within the bounds of your environment, seems to come a little more naturally. Being separated from the rest of the world by the sea encourages reliance on what you have and only taking what is needed, leaving the rest for tomorrow, a year from now, and the next generation.

Hawaii is composed of a series of volcanic islands fringed by coral reefs. In traditional lore, the demigod Maui navigated to the islands using a constellation in the shape of a fishhook. From the beginning, the sea gave life to those who settled there.

Hammerheads swimming on a reef near Big Island, Hawaii.

Mamie-Jean Lamley and her family grew up on the Waianae coast of Oahu, directly across from the beach in the 70s and 80s. She can remember her grandfather, father, brother, and husband bringing home giant fish, octopus, and lobster daily for her entire upbringing.

Mamie recalls fishing practises that have been passed down through the generations to prevent overfishing and unsustainable harvesting: "we respected the ocean. When we picked up a lobster, if it was a certain size, we would not pick it. If it had eggs, we would not touch it, so there was a respect there."

Mamie's friends and family and their catch in the 1970s and 1980s.
"When my husband would go out [fishing] - our favourite was actually the parrotfish, we call it uhu - I could drop them off on one end of the beach, and then I'd pick them up 15 miles down the road and they'd come out and they'd have fish and lobster and octopus (tako). When they got out of the water - and their spears could be as tall as 14 feet - you could see an octopus dragging on the ground; that's how large it was. Today, if my brother knows I'm coming home, he'll go and try to get me some octopus, and the octopus that he's finding can fit in a [small produce bag from the grocery store] now."

But things rapidly began to change with coastal development, unsustainable fishing practises, pollution, and changes in land zoning on Oahu and the other Hawaiian islands. In less than a decade, the reefs that Mamie's family dove on daily had changed completely.

Uhu (Parrotfish) on a healthy reef in Hawaii.
"I would say in the 80s we started to notice a really big difference. It wasn't the same anymore. That story of being barefoot, and we can be in the ocean one moment...climbing a mountain another moment. That all changed when housing came in. Coastal terrains changed when they started building the bigger hotels."
Coastal development in Hawaii near Waikiki beach.

Suddenly, the clear waters were muddy, corals were smothered, and the reefs began to be covered with a mossy turf algae. Not only did this change the aesthetic experience underwater, but it affected the food secruity and way of life for all Hawaiians who relied on the sea for nutrition and their livelihoods.

Before and after on a degraded reef in Hawaii.
"The majority of our diet came from the ocean, so it was very rare that we'd have meat unless we raised chickens. The majority of our dinners, especially on weekends, were all seafood. As I started to grow up, it's pretty sad...we tell the stories to our children about what we ate, and our kids can only see it in a tank now. You cannot get when we had when we were young"

Growing up, Mamie and her family saw the ocean as an endless supply of fish, lobster, and opihi (mussels). But now, not only are there fewer fish along the Waianae coast, but Mamie says the distribution and size of what is left has changed drastically.

Local fishermen (Mamie's husband second from left) showing off their catch.
"The type of fish we ate, we no longer could see right there in front of our home. And the fish were not as abundant as before and neither was the opihi or any of those things that we were used to...sometimes [after an afternoon fishing], we'd come home with 2-3 large coolers...a hundred pounds a piece. Today, we're lucky to bring home one cooler full of food, and its not all seafood."
Coastline of the Big Island.
"What I know the ocean had and what I can see the ocean providing now, it's very discouraging."

Unfortunately, Mamie's story is not the only one of its kind. Around the world, island nations that used to rely primarily on the sea for food are turning to grocery stores with more expensive, imported foods - the sea is simply not able to provide as much as it used to. Additional stressors such as ocean acidification, increased sea surface temperatures, invasive species, and eutrophication have contributed to a 50% loss of coral reefs over the last three decades.

Turtle on a degraded Hawaiian reef.

As restoration projects are underway in Hawaii and around the world, we are battling a changing climate to restore reef ecosystems and the services they provide to island communities. Unfortunately, the demand for beach-side property and fish isn't going anywhere. We need to fundamentally change the way we view and value reefs economically and culturally. Having grown up directly on the reef, Mamie's family continues to practise traditional, sustainable fishing methods when they do go out to fish: "Now we put back most of the things that we pick up because they are too small...but I'm not sure how many people are conscious of that."

At Reef Life Foundation, we hope that every restoration effort and study we undertake increases people's awareness of the importance of marine systems and species. It is all of our duty to ensure that future generations can enjoy the underwater world and the abundant resources it has to offer once more.

"My memories of childhood and the reef - priceless. Today, when I go home to visit, it's a very sad thing to see."
A snorkeler on a large reef in Hawaii.
Created By
Emily Higgins