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On the Reef


The diversity of reef corals and sea life in Palau is phenomenal.


“Each reef is not open,” Noah says. “It’s only open for fishing for the villagers who are in that village. And it’s only for fishing. You have no right to destroy it. You cannot go and do whatever, unless you ask permission first. Fishing is always allowed. Even from neighboring villages: if you’re really hungry, and you have nowhere to fish and if they find you fishing, okay, then you simply say, ‘we really need to have fish,’ and they’ll allow you to fish.

"But if they find you fishing and selling, then it’s entirely different. You’ll get fined heavily. So it depends on how you use the resource. In the old days, I suppose it was for personal use, and that was pretty much allowed, or they asked for permission. But currently it’s heavy use that’s a lot more than what people want to give."



"Palauans use two types of rafts, and they are mainly just for fishing activities near the shore. We don’t use rafts offshore, offshore we would use a canoe. Rafts are very good because they can go in inches of water. And it’s very stable and practical. Fishing on the raft, you are wet all the time— is pretty much just going through the water—so you have an elevated platform where put your gear.

"One kind is more for large community-oriented activities, and the other is just a smaller, more individual one for father or son to go fishing. That is mainly a utility transport for spear fishing, harpooning and such. Then there’s one we call olechútel, that’s a larger one to carry either the coconut fronds that’s used for sweeping the fish, or they’re used to carry stones to build weirs. It’s a utility transport."


Bamboo Raft

Brer, raft (usually made of bamboo).


Leaf Sweeps

Preparing and using leaf sweep (rúul). Photographs from  R. E. Johannes, "Words of the Lagoon," ©1981, The Regents of the University of California; used with permission.


"We have nets with which you actively pursue schools and you surround them, especially on reef flats and sea grass beds and sand flats. Leaf sweeps were used sometimes. That’s a village operation. We have the two big rafts that they make specifically for it, carrying these leaf sweeps, and we get one raft on each side, and you come together, driving the fish and running them into a small back-end net, using big coconut fronds on the water. It requires the whole village.

"Then you bring it forward and each person holds a piece of rope made out of vine and you keep getting it smaller. If it gets caught then you have to lift it up, so it’s a community effort. Much like what they call hukilau in Hawai‘i, but we use it on the reefs instead of the beach. It’s not a net but at the end you have a back net, so a lot of fish come in, and you figure that’s all you want, then you close the net and let the rest of the fish go."



Gathering, on the reef at Airai State.



Giant Clam

One of the species of giant clam, showing the characteristic bright colors.


"Giant clams are important, and they are used differently. The younger and smaller clams that you find on the sea grass and all the way to the reef, for Palauans they’re the preferred clams to eat. There’s another one that burrows in the rock. They’re also preferred eating clams.

"Beyond that, then there’s the fluted clams. They’re called squamosa. You find them around the Rock Islands, with kind of a flutes on them. They’re okay, but not the best. "


"Then the one that’s called kísem, that’s the one they used in the past for adzes and tools. They’re not the biggest one, but the second biggest one.

"Their shell is always nice and smooth and thick, and it’s easy to work with. They made the taro pounders out of that. All the things that came out of the clams, such as adzes and most of the tools, came from that particular species. "


Tridacna adze blade. Courtesy of the Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum, Cat. # Ngem 1/12. Photograph by Scott Fitzpatrick.


A bed of giant clams growing near Koror State.


"And then there is a really big one which wasn’t used that much, and people don’t really eat it except when they have a big occasion. Then you might get a few of those, but it’s usually not something that you bring home when you go fishing.

"Palauans are not crazy about clams. We eat it on occasion. It’s not like fish that you have to have every day. Clams, once a month or during rainy days or when you have a feast. More like the way they used turtles and other big things. It’s not an everyday food.

"Turtles likewise were an occasional food, when they have big functions. And the shell was important for the plate that the women use for the Palauan money.”



Tie beam from the Bairairrai, telling the tale of Medechiibelau and the meas pets.


Tradition holds that there is an abundance of fish and shellfish in Airai. These are attributed to Medechiibelau. Johnson and Rurecherudel tell these stories:



Meas Storyboard 1


“One day Medechiibelau went to visit the next village of Aimeliik. When he got there, the Aimeliik god, known as Tungelbai, was there clearing lagoon. He was cleaning the lagoon and making a pool, like a fish pen, for his fish pets. So Medechiibelau told him, ‘chudeléi'—'older friend or 'older brother'—'what is this for?’ And Tungelbai said, ‘I am making a fish pen for my pet fish'."


"Medechiibelau said, ‘well where are your fish?’ Tungelbai said, ‘They are somewhere in the lagoon.’ ‘How do you bring them in?’ He said, ‘well I have way.’ And then he takes a sis [ti] plant. So he asks this person, the god of Aimeliik, to show him how he would lead the school of fish. And Tungelbai would take the sis plant and he would drag it in the water, and the fish would just follow him."


Meas Storyboard 2

Tungelbai making his fish pen.


Meas Storyboard 3

Medechiibelau wants to try playing with the pet fish.


"Medechiibelau was very amazed. So he says, ‘can I try it, older brother or older friend, chudeléi, can I try it?’ He says, ‘oh, I don’t like you to ruin the charm or the magic of this.’ He says, ‘no I’ll be very careful.’ He says ‘okay you can try.’ So Medechiibelau took the sis and start driving the fish around, all the way to the edge of Aimeliik. He goes and comes right back again, twice, and the third time he just took off all the way to Airai!"


"So when Tungelbai, the god of Aimeliik, saw Medechiibelau going all the way, he got angry so that he started throwing shells, conch shells and all kinds of shellfish at him. So today they are a lot of shellfish in all over Airai, while Aimeliik has a lot of crabs and sea cucumbers, because Tungelbai did not thrown them toward Medechiibelau."


Meas Storyboard 4

Medechiibelau, using the ti (sis) plant branch, leads the fish all the way to Airai Village, while Tungelbai throws shellfish at him.


Spider Conch

The spider conch is especially associated with Medechiibelau and with Airai.


"Now in Airai we have spawning grounds for rabbit fish. Because those are Medechiibelau’s pets, which he stole from Aimeliik. So today annually there is the running of the rabbit fish in the lagoon down here. Every March and April they spawn. I mean it is a lot of fish coming out, you can see them in the lagoon.And we attribute that to Medechiibelau’s bringing the fish to Airai."



“Also he took the school of fish from Aimeliik all the way to Airai and placed them in one of the channels, toward the Koror side. And he went up and across the deep channel to the village of Ngermid in Koror. And when he went there, he saw the Ngermid god named Iechadrultachel also clearing the lagoon, making a pool or pen for his fish pets."



Buttox imprints


"Medechiibelau asks this Ngermid god,‘what’s this this for?” He says ‘this is for my fish pet.’ It’s a small fish with a black stripe that we call that sebus (cardinal fish). And Medechiibelau asked him ‘where are they?’ He says ‘oh right there.'

"So Medechiibelau steps in there and stirs the water, so the fish pet died in the water. They were competing—the gods were kind of fighting all over here. So they start fighting.

“When they first got into the fight, Iechadrultachel threw Medechiibelau on the rock. So today if you go to that island, you can see two imprints of human buttocks and the knees—you can go see them right on the island today."


"Here, the guy below is Medechiibelau and the guy on top is the Ngermid god, Iechadrultachel. He put Medechiibelau down. So while he is on his back and the other god is on top of him, Medechiibelau told the guy, ‘hey, you better apologize to me and ask me for mercy before you are killed.’ Even though he was being beaten up!

"And Iechadrultachel said ‘okay, I surrender. You win’—even though he was on top! Then Medechiibelau told him ‘well, since you are such a nice person I will share my fish pets with you.' So now annually when we have a spawning of the rabbit fish, some do spawn in Ngermid, across the channel."






"So you see those fish there? That is called temáng in Palauan. That means ‘the gift of fish.’ So now Ngermid village gets the share of the rabbit fish annually. They all come out in front of Airai village, they all spawn here, and then some go to Ngermid, due to the promise of Medechiibelau."




"One day Medechiibelau heard rumors about a beautiful women in the village of Ngeraus, in Ngchesar, by the name of Mengulchoálech, or ‘infant sea urchin.’ Mengul is like 'green' or 'fresh' or 'infant.' Choálech is a sea urchin. So the name of this women is ‘young sea urchin.’

"And when he went to the village, Medechiibelau inquired of where she resided and was told that she was sleeping in the ulengang. Ulengang is a small house inhabited by ancestral spirits, and in the olden days were located next to the houses of the high ranking clans. Supposedly they were occupied by gods: there you make offering to the gods, or the ancestor spirits."




"Medechiibelau went to check her out, so he went to this small ulengang and tried to open the door, stuck his hands in there, and the sea urchin stung him.

"When his hands were stung, he then went back to the other side of the house and saw a lot of coconut husks. So he put them in his hands and went back there, and picked this young sea urchin and brought it to Airai Village and dropped her in the lagoon.

"So there is plenty of them now in Airai. Because this beautiful women was god-like, she can be a sea urchin, or she can be a women."

Ulengang. Belau National Museum Photograph.




Much more about sea life is discussed on the next page, regarding fishing.



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