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Pacific islands face hardships as tuna follow warming waters

© Fabien Forget/ISSF

Climate change is hitting the Pacific islands — hard. As sea levels rise four times faster in the Pacific Islands than the global average, ocean warming is altering the habitat of tuna, a fish paramount to the economies and diets of these nations.

Human Nature spoke with Johann Bell, senior director of Pacific tuna fisheries at Conservation International, about his latest research into the powerful ways climate change is expected to affect tuna populations — and your lunch.

Question: Why is much of the world’s tuna found near Pacific island countries?

Answer: The most abundant tuna species, skipjack and yellowfin tuna, prefer relatively warm water, typically between 20 and 30o Celsius (60 to 86o Fahrenheit). Many of the tropical areas with warm water — and enough food for the tuna to eat — are within the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Pacific islands.

Q: What is an exclusive economic zone?

A: A country’s EEZ is the area within 200 nautical miles off the coast. The country has jurisdiction over living natural resources and sea-bed minerals within its EEZ. Thus, Pacific island countries own the rights to the tuna and all other species within their waters and also the responsibility to conserve and manage these areas and species.

Q: So what does climate change have to do with that?

A: Climate change will continue to increase the surface temperature of the ocean, and based on recent modeling, this will cause skipjack and yellowfin tuna populations to shift significantly to the east. Scientists have high confidence in this prediction because periodic El Niño events cause similar movements of tuna to the east, but only temporarily.

Q: What does this mean for the Pacific islands?

A:  If fishing companies want to catch tuna efficiently, they have to operate within the EEZs of Pacific island nations. To do this, they must pay fishing license fees to the countries’ governments. Because many Pacific island countries are small (seven of these countries have populations of less than 100,000 people), and often have few other abundant natural resources (such as timber), tuna license fees are of vital importance to their economies. Six Pacific island countries receive at least 45 percent and up to 98 percent of all their government revenue from these license fees.

Climate change will cause these fish to move progressively out of the EEZs of Pacific island countries and into international waters. As this happens, Pacific island governments will receive less revenue because foreign fishing fleets will be able to take more of their tuna catch from international waters where they do not have to pay fishing license fees.

Our study shows that Pacific island countries could lose 15 percent (US$ 60 million) of their total fishing license revenue per year due to redistribution of tuna (caused by climate change) within the next 30 years.

Q: Does this have an impact outside of these small nations?

A: This is a global climate justice issue: tuna-dependent Pacific island countries will bear the burden of climate change even though they have made trivial contributions to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, whereas the large nations that have traditionally fished heavily in the EEZs of Pacific island countries will fish at a lower cost. These large nations have also contributed heavily to the GHG emissions that cause climate change.

It is untenable that the small island economies will be losers and that fishing operations from the large, wealthy nations will profit from climate change impacts. 


Q: So what can be done?

A: A promising way to insulate Pacific island economies against a loss of license revenue would be to explore how best to add value to tuna. Currently, the fish is mainly sold to make canned products or as high-grade sashimi. Increasing the value of tuna by developing a wider range of products should help Pacific island countries maintain current license-fee revenues even though fewer tuna occur in their EEZs.

For example, Iceland has added value to the cod caught in its waters by finding innovative ways to use 100 percent of the fish. This includes producing pharmaceuticals from cod skin, using cod intestines to make additives for a protein drink and exporting dried cod skeletons to make soup. Conservation International has been guiding conversations between Pacific island fisheries’ agencies and Iceland to explore innovative ways to add value to tuna.

We are also developing a “natural currency standard” for tuna in collaboration with Pacific island countries, which involves promoting the sale of tuna caught in an environmentally sustainable way, a socially responsible way and in a way that respects the cultural use of tuna by Pacific island people.

Lastly, we are exploring how best to help Pacific islands retain the rights to the tuna resources that currently occur within their EEZs, regardless of displacement of the fish by climate change. This would mean that although some tuna would no longer physically be in the EEZs of a Pacific island country, these fish would still belong economically to that country. To work with Pacific island countries to negotiate effectively for these rights, Conservation International and partners are promoting the development of much more in-depth models for assessing the effects of climate change on the distribution of tuna.

Johann Bell is senior director of Pacific tuna fisheries at Conservation International. Olivia DeSmit is a former staff writer at Conservation International.


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