One of the greatest, though unsung, heroes of the Marshall Islands is my friend Gene Savage. With one simple act, he altered the existence of the entire population of a remote island, changing it from a living hell into a peaceful near-utopia.
You’ve almost certainly never heard of Mejit Island. It is one of hundreds in the Marshall Islands, on the eastern edge of Micronesia. Chart a course from anywhere to anywhere, and Mejit will not lie on that course. It is a peanut-shaped island and, at 0.72 square miles, nearly peanut-sized. It is home to about 450 people.
Most islands in Micronesia are remnants of coral reefs that formed around ancient islands. In most cases the original island has completely eroded away, leaving small sections of reef that are just barely above water at current sea levels. Typically, these islands are about a quarter mile wide and less than a mile long, which is why the region is called Micronesia. Where the ancient island has disappeared, what usually remains is a relatively shallow lagoon.
Mejit is an exception to this pattern. It is comparable in size to one of the coral isles of an atoll, but it is an ancient island that has not completely eroded away. It is not the remnants of a reef, but a proper island with its own small barrier reef. And, most importantly to this story, Mejit has a little lake in the middle of its northern half — about 2,000 feet long, 200 feet wide, and 20 feet deep at its lowest point (a bit more after a heavy rain). Most Micronesians on other islands have to catch and store rainwater, but Mejit has its own permanent natural freshwater reservoir.
In 1994, my friend Gene was a civilian working on the U.S. Army base in the Marshalls. He took advantage of his time there to visit a few of the nearby islands; and, as a member of a church outreach group, he visited Mejit. While each island he had visited had its charm, they didn’t vary much from one to the next. Mejit, however, was special. For one thing, Gene was delighted to encounter the lake. He was also captivated by a particular resident of the island — a young Marshallese woman named Neyrann. He began courting her, and he eagerly planned future trips to Mejit.
Gene loved Mejit. But there was one serious problem. Though the human population benefited from the freshwater reservoir, the lake created a perfect breeding environment for mosquitoes. Aside from Neyrann and the lake, the island’s most notable feature, for Gene, was the mosquitoes. When he examined the lake closely, the only living things he found were algae and mosquito larvae.
Life for the people on this otherwise idyllic tropical island was ruined by the overwhelming, ever-present swarm of mosquitoes. Life for the mosquitoes, on the other hand, was great; they had a large supply of human blood, and they had no
Imagine a new Mosquito Eradication Bureau in the finest building on Mejit, and a tax to support it. Who could argue with the need?
natural predators. Given the choice between being sucked dry of their blood and inhaling poisonous fumes all night, most islanders chose to burn anti-mosquito coils in their houses, despite the clear warnings on the boxes against indoor use.
The lack of natural predators for the mosquitoes suggested to Gene that the mosquitoes were recent immigrants to the island. Most likely, he thought, they had arrived on cargo ships when they started regular trips to the Marshalls. But since the natural balance was already upset, Gene figured that there was no harm in upsetting it a little further. A couple of months after his first trip, he went back to Mejit to see Neyrann, bring Christmas toys for the island children, and bring a Christmas present for the lake as well — a little plastic bag containing about two dozen guppies that he had acquired from a friend’s aquarium. He dumped the fish into the south end of the lake. They swam off.
The next morning he returned to look for the fish but could not find them. He figured that something in the lake hadn’t agreed with them, and they were dead.
Six months passed. Gene went to Mejit again, this time to marry his island girl. On his first day there he looked for signs of the fish he had released, but he saw nothing. It must have been true: the lake just wasn’t hospitable to them.
Two days later, Neyrann became Mrs. Savage. After the wedding, Gene and Neyrann followed the island custom of walking around the lake thanking people for attending the ceremony. One woman asked what kind of fish he had put in the lake six months earlier. He told her they were minnows (which isn’t correct, but you have to allow heroes their little flaws). “Too bad though,” he said, “I haven’t been able to find any.” She replied, “Oh, there are lots of them over here,” and she directed him to her back door near the lake. Gene couldn’t believe his eyes. He saw hundreds of fish swimming about, including some large ones, two or three inches long.
“Has anyone else seen them?” he asked the woman. “Yes!” she answered. “People are putting them in their wells to eat the mosquitoes.” She told Gene how the fish picked at your skin when you stood still. The children enjoyed that; they claimed that the fish are cleaning them. Later Gene got into the water and felt the fish pecking him all over. He donned his mask and snorkel and was thrilled to see guppies everywhere. Best of all, there wasn’t a mosquito larva in sight. Gene worried about what the guppies were going to eat, now that there were no mosquito larvae. But in his last trip there, in 2002, the guppies were still plentiful, and the mosquitoes were gone.
You never know what the results will be when you introduce a non-native species into an environment. It will pry itself into the food chain somewhere, and it may compete with native species in the same place in the chain. The new species may eat too much of one thing, or create new waste that chokes off something else. The implications of the presence of an exotic species may be too complex even to be recognized. But in the case of Mejit, nothing but good seems to have come from the introduction.
Mejit is far isolated by ocean water from the nearest place that could support guppies, so there’s virtually no chance of them escaping on their own and affecting some other habitat. Before the guppies arrived there were already a lot of birds on Mejit eating the plentiful reef fish and washing them down with freshwater from the lake, so there isn’t likely to be much increase in bird droppings because of an increase in birds at the lake. The only downside I can see is if someone who used to enjoy swimming in the lake stopped doing so because he didn’t like the fish pecking at him. But I would think that even that person would view it as an equitable alternative to living with mosquitoes.
One downside for merchants only: sales of mosquito coils plummeted to zero.
As an engineer, Gene saw a problem and, by his nature, wanted to solve it. As a caring human being, Gene saw the suffering of the people and wanted to relieve it. He is not the type of person who likes to draw attention to himself. He didn’t act to achieve fame or gratitude. But regardless of that, the citizens of Mejit remember Gene and recognize him every time he visits. No visit has passed without some words of gratitude to him.
It’s fortunate for all parties that Mejit is, for the most part, off the government radar. An alternative to Gene’s simple, elegant solution might have been a government effort to eradicate the insect pests. I can envision endless environmental studies, multiple travel junkets by politicians and scientists, mosquito netting purchases, periodic spraying campaigns, and condescending, paternalistic, self-righteous bureaucracy. Imagine a new Mosquito Eradication Bureau in the finest building on Mejit, and a tax to support it all. Who could argue with the need for it? Mejit islanders are grateful that the mosquitoes are gone, but they may not know how lucky they are that Gene saw the problem before government set its sights on it.
Except for this story, there is no record of what Gene did. There are various plaques, museums, and gravestones scattered around the Marshall Islands to remind people of big events, such the “discovery” of the islands by John Charles Marshall in 1788, the epic battles of WWII, and the atomic testing of the 1950s. These monuments are sufficient reminders of the large, discernible events that shaped the region. But if we ever start erecting monuments to people who have invisibly benefited the people while slowing the growth of government, there should be a big statue of Gene Savage at the south end of the lake on Mejit Island.