South Pacific islanders threatened by climate change and overfishing

Foreign tuna-fishing vessels and a changing ocean are putting pressure on small-scale fishers

Papua New Guinea, South Pacific

Papua New Guinea, South Pacific (Image: Hemis / Alamy)

Tony Yao used to fish in his outrigger canoe in the coastal waters off Tahiti in French Polynesia. But the decline in fish populations has forced his family to move in order to find less exploited fishing grounds.

His is just one story from the South Pacific that hints at a paradise being lost. The coral and volcanic archipelagos scattered across this massive expanse of ocean face a number of threats, but climate change and overfishing are arguably the most serious. In the past decade, many small-scale fishers have done the same as Tony Yao or abandoned their traditional livelihoods altogether.

Figures from the World Bank show that nearly one-third of global fish populations are overexploited. This has been driven by the rising demand for seafood across the world, but especially in China. Dwindling catches in China’s coastal waters have seen the country’s distant-water fishing fleet travel to the farthest reaches of the Pacific. There they are targeting tuna, the region’s highest-prized species.

Map of the Pacific Islands showing Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia
Source: Congressional Record Service

The Pacific tuna fishing grounds are the largest in the world, contributing more than 60% of the global tuna catch. According to the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), almost all tuna in the region are caught in one of two ways. Those to be sold in cans are mainly caught by purse seine fishing boats targeting skipjack tuna. While longline vessels catch bigeye and yellowfin destined for high-value sashimi markets.

It’s a lucrative industry where a single tuna can net US$3 million. The fees paid by foreign vessels have also become a significant source of revenue for national governments. According to a Food and Agriculture Organization study completed in 2014, South Pacific island countries received just over US$340 million in fishing licence fees that year. At the same time, tuna remains a vital source of food and employment for local people, and many are unhappy about the increasing presence of Chinese fishing vessels.

In French Polynesia, there’s been a wave of online protests and petitions to ban Chinese tuna fishing this year. Many accuse the Chinese of fishing illegally. There is no evidence for this and the Chinese deny it. However, they are buying up the biggest share of fishing licences, which is leaving competing fishers with less.

The Western & Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) oversees an international convention that aims to ensure rules are fair for all foreign nations operating in exclusive economic zones (EEZs) – up to 200 nautical miles off shore – of the Pacific nations as well as in the high seas (international waters) area between latitude 20N to 20S. The latest WCPFC figures show that 3,239,704 metric tonnes of tuna were caught across the Pacific in 2017. Of that, 78% (nearly 2,539,950 metric tonnes) came from the area managed by the commission.

But much of the fishing for tuna takes place in the high seas, which is largely unregulated. Despite WCPFC efforts, the management of shared stocks of highly migratory species, like tuna, often fails. The presence of extensive areas of international waters among the EEZs complicates the region’s fishery management efforts. It is here that China dominates, with more than 600 vessels out of a total of 1,300 foreign-operated ships. Their fleet is enabled by government subsidies on fuel and shipbuilding, which assist new enterprises and allow others to keep operating.

James Movick, director general of the FFA, claims that management of the high seas is the biggest single threat to the sustainability of the Pacific tuna fisheries. “When fishing in our 200-mile EEZs, they are subject to regulation and a robust fishery management regime. Outside, it is pretty much a free-for-all, and tuna do not recognise the boundaries of our EEZs,” he said.

A lack of data transparency and public reporting on fisheries compounds the problem. The Pacific Islands Tuna Industry Association in Fiji maintains a registry of all fishing vessels licensed to fish in the region. John Maefiti, an executive officer with the association, indicates that there are 627 Chinese fishing vessels registered, and the majority are longliners. But he adds: “There are some Chinese-owned vessels that fly Pacific islands flags.”

Cecile Matai, responsible for offshore, coastal and lagoon fishing licence applications in Papeete, the Tahitian capital of French Polynesia, claims: “No Chinese ship has a fishing licence, but there are Chinese ships in our ports for refuelling and obtaining supplies, or with mechanical problems which are being repaired.”

A compounded crisis

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), climate change is compounding food security issues in the Pacific islands, with harvests from fisheries expected to fall between 10-30% by 2050. Rising water temperatures, lower levels of oxygen and shifting ocean currents are already having a profound impact on the four main tuna species, as well as more generally on fish habitats, food webs, fish populations and the productivity of fisheries.

Climate change is also leading to more extreme weather in the South Pacific. The 2015-2016 tropical cyclone season was one of the most disastrous on record. Cyclone Winston, which smashed into Fiji in February 2016, was the strongest ever to make landfall in the southern hemisphere. As sea surface temperatures become warmer, hurricanes, typhoons and tropical cyclones become more powerful.

Rising sea levels are another major issue for the region’s islands. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts global sea levels could climb by as much as 83 centimetres by the end of this century if greenhouse gas emissions remain high. The levels are creeping up even faster in the Pacific, where at least eight low-lying islands have been submerged in recent years.

Marine scientists are now finding links between ocean acidification and a decline in tuna populations. A new study in the journal Science outlines the impacts warming waters have on commercially important fish species. Changes in the ocean temperature are affecting fragile ecosystem food webs. “While tuna spend their time in open water, tuna species as well as tuna fisheries depend on healthy coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs” claims UN Environment coral expert, Jerker Tamelander.

Over the sweep of a rich history in the South Pacific, Tony Yao and his ancestors have maintained a deep connection to the marine environment. After all, the ocean has always been the provider of life itself. Having met extraordinary challenges during their evolution, island cultures are now experiencing ones they could not have imagined, including unprecedented sea levels, storm surges from tropical cyclones, ocean warming, acidification, disappearing coral reefs, and competition from registered and unregistered fishing vessels.