Climate change and warming ocean waters are causing tuna fisheries to migrate to international waters, away from a country’s jurisdiction, thereby putting the food and economic security of many Pacific Island countries and territories at risk.
Now a Pacific Community (SPC) led regional initiative will help ensure that these countries are equipped to cope with climate change-induced tuna migration.
“All the climate change projections indicate that there will be a redistribution of tuna from the western and central Pacific to the more eastern and towards the polar regions, that is not Antarctica or the Arctic, but to regions outside of the equatorial zones where they primarily occur at the moment,” says SPC’s Principal Fisheries Scientist, Dr Simon Nicol.
“This has really important implications for the Pacific Island countries. Our projections suggest that about one-fifth or about USD$100 million of the income derived from the tuna industry directly is likely to be lost by 2050 by these countries,” Nicol tells IPS.
The total annual catch of tuna in the western and central Pacific Ocean represents around 55 percent of global tuna production. Approximately half of this catch is from the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Pacific Island countries.
The recent USD$15.5 million [NZD25 million] funding by New Zealand for SPC’s ‘Climate Science for Ensuring Pacific Tuna Access’ programme will enable Pacific Island countries to prepare and adapt the region’s tuna fisheries to meet the challenges posed by climate change.
Nicol says that the investment that New Zealand has provided for the programme will allow for more rigorous and timely monitoring of the types of changes that are occurring, both due to the impacts of fishing and climate change, at a very fine resolution. Secondly, it will also provide the additional resources that are needed to increase the ocean monitoring capacity to remove the anomalies and biases to particular local conditions, which often occur in global climate models.
“We have noted, for example, that the boundary of the warm pool in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Nauru can have an element of bias associated with it. It’s an important oceanographic feature in the western Pacific equatorial zone, which moves in association with the El Nino Southern Oscillation. Sometimes its eastern boundary is right next to Papua New Guinea, and at other times, it extends all the way past Nauru. It is a key driver of recruitment for skipjack tuna, so we need to be quite precise where that boundary is for any prediction of skipjack recruitment that occurs in any given year,” he tells IPS.
The analysis at the ocean basin scale does not provide EEZ scale information for particular countries, and it is often not precise in predicting when the impact of climate change is going to manifest itself.
Under the programme, a Pacific-owned advanced warning system will be developed by SPC to help countries forecast, monitor and manage tuna migration, which is set to become more pronounced in the coming decades.
“The advanced warning system will allow us to zoom in on what the likely changes are in each particular country’s EEZ and also zoom in more accurately and precisely on when those changes are likely to occur, which is particularly important from a Pacific Island country perspective,” Nicol tells IPS.
Whilst Pacific Island countries manage the tuna resource collectively to ensure its biological sustainability, the income that they derive is very much a national-level enterprise. A recent study in Nature Sustainability estimates that the movement of tuna stocks could cause a fall of up to 17 percent in the annual government revenue of some of these countries.
The study notes that more than 95 percent of all tuna caught from the jurisdictions of the 22 Pacific Island countries and territories comes from the combined EEZs of 10 Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS) – Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu. On average, they derive 37 percent (ranging from four percent for Papua New Guinea to 84 percent for Tokelau) of all government revenue from tuna-fishing access fees paid by foreign industrial fishing fleets.
“The advanced warning system would allow for more refined predictions of the changes in tuna stock, abundance, distribution and the fisheries around them. This is very important to what each country gets as access fees, which relates to how much tuna is typically caught in their EEZ,” says Dr Meryl Williams, Vice Chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation.
“Access fees usually form part of the general consolidated revenue that the government has to spend on hospitals, education and infrastructure, and hence it is a very important source of revenue for people’s economic development in many of the Pacific Island countries,” she adds.
Currently, the programme is focused only on the four dominant tuna species – Skipjack (Katsuwonus pelamis), Yellowfin (Thunnus albacares), Bigeye (Thunnus obesus) and the South Pacific Albacore (Thunnus alalunga) – caught in the Pacific Island countries.
SPC’s Director of Climate Change and Environmental Sustainability, Coral Pasisi says, “Without successful global action to mitigate climate change, the latest ecosystem modelling predicts a significant decrease in the availability of tropical tuna species (tuna biomass) in the Western Pacific due to a shifting of their biomass to the east and some declines in overall biomass. Negative impacts on coastal fish stocks important for local food security are also predicted”.
Curbing greenhouse gas emissions in line with The Paris Agreement could help limit tuna migration away from the region. “We have to ensure sustainable fishing levels for the Pacific Islands. To reach this goal, developed countries should act quickly and increase their ambition to stay below 1.5 degrees centigrade, and Pacific countries should maintain sustainable management of their fisheries resources,” Pasisi tells IPS.
She says the future of the Pacific region’s marine resources will be secured through nearshore fish aggregating devices, sustainable coastal fisheries management plans, and aquaculture.
“We must also complete the work on delineating all Exclusive Economic Zone boundaries to ensure sovereignty over the resources. We need and seek international recognition for the permanency of these. We also must work with all fishing nations in the Pacific to ensure that sustainable management of tuna fisheries continues, even if there is a shift into international waters,” Pasisi adds.
The programme will work with Pacific Island countries and territories to develop and implement new technologies and innovative approaches to enable the long-term sustainability of the region’s tuna fisheries.
There is a need to also recognise the more direct fisheries benefits that people, including women, receive from their contributions to the tuna industry, says Williams, who is also the founder and immediate past Chair of the Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries section of the Asian Fisheries Society.
“Looking at the whole of employment in small-scale and industrial fisheries tuna value chains, not just fishing but also processing, trading, work in offices and in fisheries management etc., we estimate that women probably make up at least half, if not more than half, of the labour force in the tuna industry. Hence, their role is very important in sustainably managing the tuna stock in Pacific Island countries,” she tells IPS.