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With climate change, Pacific tuna economy enters uncharted waters

© Gary Stokes

For many who live near the ocean, the effects of climate change are already being felt, with rising seas overrunning shorelines from Miami to the Marshall Islands — and threatening the very existence of many islands.

Beyond the existential questions that arise for vulnerable island countries, there is also the practical question of control over the natural wealth these nations possess. In the case of Pacific islands, this wealth comes in the form of tuna — lots of it.

If a nation loses reefs and islands as a result of sea-level rise, does it lose the right to its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and associated fisheries and mineral resources? Does it lose its right to be a nation? If warmer waters alter the migration patterns of the world’s most valuable fish species, who will reap the benefits — and who will lose?

On these questions, Pacific islands moving to retain control of their territories are entering uncharted waters.

A billion-dollar fish

In the west central Pacific, home to the largest tuna fishery on the planet, commercial tuna catch usually makes up more than 60% of the global tuna supply, with two-thirds of that taken from the EEZs of Pacific Island states. From low-income nations that rely on it as a primary source of protein to the luxury food market, tuna has become a US$ 10 billion global industry — and it stands to be significantly affected by climate change.

The EEZs of the 23 Pacific Islands nations and territories total some 27 million square kilometers (10 million square miles) spread over a region comprising 10% of the world’s total ocean surface — an area four times the size of the United States. In a region where people can depend on fish up for 90% of their animal protein — and sometimes as much as 70% of government revenue — changes to fish stocks, including tuna, can profoundly impact lives, livelihoods and entire economies.

Further reading

According to Sue Taei, executive director of New Zealand and the Pacific Islands at Conservation International (CI), the tuna in this fishery are multi-species, migratory, fished in different ways and shared between extremely culturally diverse islands. “It’s one of the most complicated fisheries in the world today and it is, by far, the most important source of tuna globally.”

The tip of the iceberg

Unfortunately, this region is already experiencing the effects of a strong El Niño year, with tuna following the warmer currents that are moving eastward. As weather patterns such as El Niño become more frequent and more intense with climate change, tuna are predicted to migrate away from historical fishing grounds like Palau and Papua New Guinea to the east. While this could be beneficial in the short term for islands such as Tuvalu and Kiribati that are situated farther east, it’s a boon that may not last.

“As warmer water currents continue pushing eastward, the tuna — assuming they’re able to survive ocean acidification and other stressors — will increasingly move beyond many Pacific Island nations’ boundaries and out into the high seas,” Taei said.

The problem this causes is twofold.

For one, the high seas are renowned havens for modern-day pirates engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. This poses a real threat to the sustainability of tuna fisheries and the people who rely on them.

The second part of the problem: As tuna move farther east and out of national boundaries, Pacific Island nations to the west are losing a valuable economic resource — and one increasingly important for local food security, given that serious declines in coral reef fisheries are also predicted.

According to Taei, one solution could be to give “some form of collective jurisdiction or authority to island states of surrounding high-seas areas as a way of managing tuna populations in the face of climate change.”

Taking the high ground

Some of the lowest-lying islands already facing the effects of rising seas, including Kiribati and Tuvalu, lack the resources to fortify coasts and build expansive sea walls, and so face a future of relocating their populations en masse. This has major implications for whether and how these countries would continue to control their EEZs.

EEZs give countries sovereign rights over waters 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from the outermost points of their coasts. A territory’s coastline defines its EEZ — but if a country’s coastline is lost because its reefs and islands become swallowed by rising seas, should that country lose its right to the ocean that remains?

Under the current international law of the sea, which was created before climate change was well researched or understood, island states could risk losing their EEZs and with them, the exclusive right to manage and exploit the fish stocks in those waters.

Pacific Islands can’t afford to wait around to see what happens. “The leaders in this region are taking steps now to secure their boundaries,” Taei said, “and then they must jointly proclaim [that they] will not recognize any jurisdictional loss due to climate change.”

It may be easy to see this as someone else’s problem. In fact, more than half of the EEZ of the United States is located in the central Pacific.

“This is about securing U.S. domain as much as Tuvalu’s,” Taei said. “Even more importantly, it’s about realizing the global impact — on people, on economies, on species and on the very make-up of our planet — that our actions are having.”

“It’s time to stop thinking of climate change as someone else’s problem. It’s ours, and it’s here.”

Sarah Hauck is a writer for CI. 

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