Study: Warming Waters Threaten Tuna-Dependent Economies in the Pacific


Climate change is driving tuna further to the east, threatening the economic security of several small island nations

Global warming is expected to progressively push tuna populations from the waters of 10 Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS) into the high seas, disrupting island economies, according to a new collaborative study by Conservation International and a consortium of technical agencies, including The Pacific Community (SPC), the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), the Parties to the Nauru Agreement Office (PNAO), the University of Wollongong and their partners.

The research, published today in the journal Nature Sustainability, explores the impacts of ocean warming on tuna and quantifies the potential financial losses that these Pacific SIDS are likely to incur as tuna are redistributed due to climate change.

The robust modelling done during the multi-disciplinary study demonstrates that if ocean warming continues at current rates the tuna catch in the combined waters of the 10 Pacific SIDS is expected to decline by an average of 20% by 2050.

“This is a climate justice issue,” said Johann Bell, lead author and the Senior Director of Tuna Fisheries at Conservation International’s Centre for Oceans. “The 10 Pacific SIDS have a deep economic dependence on tuna fishing but contribute little to global warming. In contrast, nations responsible for 60% of historical greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would benefit from the migration of tuna to the high seas.”

“The new modelling shows for the first time that tuna catches are likely to decrease in each of the 10 Pacific SIDS by 2050 under a high GHG scenario,” said Simon Nicol, Principal Fisheries Scientist (Fisheries and Ecosystem Monitoring and Analysis) at SPC. “Previous modelling indicated that some of the 10 Pacific SIDS would be losers and others would be winners from tuna redistribution. This new study demonstrates that all of the 10 tuna-dependent economies will be negatively impacted.”

The lower tuna catches are expected to reduce the access fees that Pacific SIDS receive from distant-water fishing nations to operate in their waters, resulting in annual losses of total government revenue in the range of 8-17% for some Pacific SIDS by 2050 under a high emissions scenario.

Such losses, according to the Director-General of Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, Manu Tupou-Roosen, will have serious consequences for governments and Pacific people, who depend on tuna revenue to support livelihoods and vital programmes in key sectors such as education and health. “The losses are also expected to reduce the financial flexibility needed to assist communities to adapt to climate change,” she said.

The study identifies two pathways that would likely limit the impacts of tuna migration on the region:

*Implementing ambitious action plans from the largest GHG emitters to curb emissions and limit global warming to 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Agreement. This would largely prevent redistribution of tuna.
*Enabling Pacific SIDS to negotiate, through the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), to maintain the benefits they receive from tuna, regardless of the effects of climate change on the distribution of the fish.

“Pacific SIDs are disproportionately suffering from a crisis for which they are hardly responsible. Tuna redistribution is one of the many consequences of climate change, which is expected to further weaken Pacific economies and important food systems already heavily impacted by COVID-19. This critical situation has already been raised in several international fora including the UN Security Council and will be highlighted by the Pacific Island region at COP26 in Glasgow, and we strongly hope that it will lead to concrete commitments by the COP and the UNFCCC architecture including its financing mechanisms” said Stuart Minchin, Director-General of SPC.

The study also shows that tuna redistribution has implications for management of one of the world’s largest fisheries.

“When tuna move from the exclusive economic zones of Pacific SIDS to the high seas, it is more difficult to enforce the regulations designed to sustain the stocks and the economies that rely on them,” said Sangaalofa Clark, CEO of the Office of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement – the Pacific Island countries that have implemented the world-class ‘vessel day scheme’ to manage tuna catches sustainably within their combined waters.

According to Quentin Hanich from the University of Wollongong, the implications of tuna redistribution are potentially severe and need to be addressed through cooperative management consistent with the international legal framework. “The WCPFC, has already begun to consider such issues and adopted a Resolution on Climate Change in 2019,” he said.

New levels of co-operation between the two regional fisheries management organisations responsible for regulating tuna fishing in the high-seas areas of the Western and Central Pacific Ocean and in the Eastern Pacific Ocean will also be needed to ensure a balance that benefits both natural resources and Pacific Island economies.

The study, “Pathways to sustaining tuna-dependent Pacific Island economies during climate change” was co-authored by scientists and other experts from 21 institutions. It is dedicated to the late Sue Taei, former Executive Director of Conservation International’s programmes in the Pacific Island region, and the first person to call for an investigation of the climate justice implications of tuna redistribution.

The 10 SIDs included in this study are: Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu.

Media contacts

Jessica Brown, Media Relations Specialist, Conservation International, Washington DC | or 734-748-7361

Toky Rasoloarimanana, Communications Officer, Fisheries, Aquaculture and Marine Ecosystems Division, Pacific Community (SPC), Noumea | or Whatsapp : +230 57433661

Samantha Mattila, Strategic Communications Manager, Pacific Island Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), Solomon Islands | or +61 434 567 673