WCPFC14, Manila— KIRIBATI already faces the huge burden of rising sea levels which threatens its very existence.
With little land resources on which to grow food, the tiny Pacific atoll republic has bought land in Fiji on which to plant food for and perhaps relocate its 100,000 people.
But its immediate threat is the struggle to maintain and effectively use its Exclusive Economic Zone which covers 3.5 million square kilometres of the Pacific between Tuvalu to the south and Hawaii to the North.
In order to access its own fisheries, Kiribati’s small fishing fleet often has to cross high seas pockets (international waters outside national EEZs) which are open to abuse by the long line fleets of large Distant water Fishing Nations.
Kiribati’s Fisheries Minister, Tetabo Nakara, said his country’s non-contiguous EEZs were the only viable source of economic survival and stability.
“Access fees from tuna fishing contributes more than 80 per cent toward the total government’s annual expenditure that supports, amongst others, crucial funding for our education system, medical care, other basic needs that the Government is obligated to deliver as services to its inhabitants, as well as salaries of Government civil servants,” Ankara said.
“We in Kiribati have no land-based natural resources available as a means of stable and secure livelihood for our people as our lands are made of poor coralline soils thus prompting Kiribati to look elsewhere for a sustainable source of revenue.”
The search for sustainable revenue has meant the setting up of a tuna processing plant on one of its tiny atolls, Tarawa, amidst pessimistic technical advice from experts.
Much of that advice was based on social surveys of urbanisation issues prevalent in Small Islands Developing States.
Among the reasons offered for not establishing a tuna processing plant were high electricity costs, limited land space for development, limited water supply and the isolation from major cosmopolitan markets.
With unemployment at upwards of a staggering 30 per cent, the new Kiribati Fisheries Limited plant is a major boost for the nation.
Apart from employing 300 people, the plant ensures greater retention of tuna revenue for the republic.
“We have invested over $USD10 million in our state of art fish processing factory in Tarawa,” said Xu Jun Du, Managing Director of Kiribati Fish Limited.
“We are able to process MSC certified tuna products such as yellowfin tuna steaks and loins for the export markets in EU and the USA (and) we will create more local jobs and maximize value of the tuna resource from Kiribati.”
The Kiribati Fish project will allow the country to benefit from its own natural resources in a more sustainable and equitable manner. Tuna in the Pacific is estimated to be worth $USD7billion annually and the Pacific receives a modest 10 per cent of this.
“This processing plant provides employment opportunities, through tuna loin processing, tuna fishing, tuna marketing, not just for those in the urban areas of Kiribati but also for those living in rural areas,” Fisheries Minister Nakara said.
But the operation does not come without challenges.
“Like all processing plants, our small tuna processing plant cannot operate without having in place a consistent and reliable supply of raw materials,” Nakara said.
“With a few domestic fishing vessels, Kiribati is struggling to meet the raw materials needed to viably operate this tuna-loin processing plant.”
Today at the 14th Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission in Pasay City, the Philippines, Kiribati will be looking for a sympathetic reception from the region and the international community.
“There are many challenges that my people and Government face, one of which is the disproportionate burden stemming from the way our island groups are geographically situated,” Nakara said.
“In order to fish from one part of our waters, our domestic fishing vessels need to navigate through the high seas pockets to reach our other EEZs.
“In light of this, we in Kiribati, categorically respect the high seas pockets as part of our planned fishing areas, thus stressing here how important it is for our vessels to fish in the adjacent high seas.”
Not all fishing nations – especially China, Japan and South Korea – respect the limitations Pacific countries wish to place on fishing in the high seas.
Those limitations on the amount of fish to be caught are designed primarily to ensure sustainability of a resource Pacific countries believe should be owned by the region.
That Kiribati is hurting would be an understatement.
Its oceans provide more than 50 per cent of the Pacific tuna catch, it has a tiny fleet of boats compared to the distant water fishing nations yet it has been caught in bans designed to ensure sustainable fish stocks.
That includes a ban on the use of Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) – man-made objects used to attract ocean going pelagic fish.
The current three-month annual FAD-fishing ban hits Kiribati particularly hard because tuna fishing in the central Pacific is more FAD-dependent than further west.
Nakara said tuna was of paramount importance for the viability of our sustainable development for our future generation and these bans were detrimental to his country.
“Imagine then what the likely ramifications will be if our domestic fishing vessels are further restricted from fishing on FADS for 12 months in addition to the three months that we have been able to tolerate over the years, or if they are deprived of fishing tuna in the adjacent high seas,” he said.
Kiribati unanimously closed off 11 per cent of its combined EEZ area, known as the Phoenix Island Protected Area in 2006.This was extended in 2008 to become (at the time) the largest Marine Protected Area in the world, with an ocean surface area of over 408,000 square kilometres.
Obviously Nakara believes Kiribati is punching way above its weight in terms of conservation of tuna and the FAD ban is unfair to smaller nations.
However Kiribati is unlikely to receive sympathy from the larger fishing nations and win a reprieve allowing it to fish off FADs.
If the attitude or larger nations towards climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions to save countries like Kiribati is any indication, this tiny Pacific republic is likely to struggle on alone for some time yet.–ENDS