Pacific tuna fisheries sustainable but need to consider threats, especially from climate change

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Catching tuna on boat
Jenni Metcalfe

Jenni Metcalfe

I am founder and director of Econnect Communication. Our company is a team of talented and skilled science communicators. Our vision is to 'bring science to life'.
Jenni Metcalfe

The foresight of Pacific Islands country leaders in the late ‘90s means that the tropical tuna stocks in the Western Central Pacific today are being fished sustainably, despite pressures from increased fishing including illegal, unregulated or unreported fishing.

These are the findings of UN expert consultant on ocean and coastal management and governance, Dr David Vousden, who presented the conclusions of a detailed analysis of Western and Central Pacific oceanic fisheries to a meeting of Pacific fisheries managers in Rarotonga, Cook Islands earlier this month.

Dr Vousden says one of the most notable aspects of the tuna fisheries within the Pacific Islands region has been its continuing sustainability.

“All the available scientific monitoring evidence and modelling supports the conclusion that the tuna fishery in the Convention area is sustainable and is currently not being overfished.

“This is down to the fact that the countries have been working together through this Convention [Western Central Pacific Fisheries] and by carrying out the various activities and requirements in terms of monitoring and managing the fisheries, both within their EEZs [Exclusive Economic Zones] and out there in the high seas as well.”

Many Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs) depend on tuna fisheries for a significant part of their income through their own domestic fishing operations and through licensing foreign vessels. About 60 per cent of the world’s commercial tuna supplies come from this region.

But tuna are highly mobile fish that moves across the EEZs of many different countries and also across the high seas. For this reason, Pacific tuna fisheries management is considered to be a ‘transboundary concern’ whereby countries need to negotiate with each other about fishing access and sustainability.

The Oceanic Fisheries Management Project (OFMP2) contracted Dr Vousden to conduct a ‘Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis” of the Western Pacific Warm Pool Large Marine Ecosystem.

“This process identifies the threats and their effects on fisheries and people, but it also looks at the real root causes that are making these happen,” he says.

“So, if you have a threat like overfishing, why is this happening? Is it because it’s not being monitored properly? Is it due to illegal fishing?

“Once you know these root causes, you can look at how best to resolve them and reduce or remove the threat”

Dr Vousden found that while the tuna fisheries in the Pacific Islands region are currently sustainable, they are also being threatened by the future risks of overfishing, climate change, bycatch of non-target species like sharks and turtles, and potentially by pollution from the land and from vessels on the sea.

“One of the biggest challenge is improving the management processes,” he says. “The current management processes have been successful but they are rather ad hoc and there is a need to move to stronger longer term strategies for managing harvesting to avoid the risk of overfishing, supported by strengthened compliance and enforcement and enhanced information gathering and scientific understanding.

Dr Vousden presents about the TDA in Rarotonga (Photo: Toss Gascoigne)

Dr Vousden also noted the massive issue of climate change and pointed to the “exceptionally good climate change modelling” being conducted by the Pacific Community (SPC) scientists. Within this context, he cautioned that the predicted impacts from climate change could potentially upset and confound the otherwise god efforts toward long-term, sustainable management of the oceanic fishery.

“Tuna are restricted in their range by water temperatures and by the amount of tuna ‘forage’ or food supply that they have. Climate change affects both of these parameters,” he says.

In Rarotonga May 2018: (left) Perry Head, acting DDG for FFA; (middle) David Vousden; (right) Hugh Walton OFMP2 Coordinator with FFA (Photo: Toss Gascoigne)

“We are seeing a change over the past decade where tuna populations are moving away from some islands and migrating closer to others. We are also seeing the upwelling currents from ocean floors diminishing and, along with them, much of the nutrients that drive the food chains that the tuna rely upon.”

Dr Vousden has set out his findings in a technical report, which needs to be factually approved by all the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) Pacific member countries. Once agreed, the next step is to produce a Strategic Action Programme for ministerial endorsement. This may then well lead to further funding and investment to support the PICTs in implement the actions identified and endorsed within the SAP.

Dr Vousden is optimistic that such support to implement the SAP would receive international support and funding, especially given the record of OFMP2: “This is about as good a flagship project as you can get in terms of governance and management of large marine ecosystems. The countries and their partners really understand what needs to be done in terms of oceanic fisheries management, and they’re really going for it.”

Despite the scale of possible threats and their impacts on the marine ecosystem, Dr Vousden is also confident of the ability of the regional and national fisheries managers to tackle them.

“When you’re dealing with an area the size of the Western and Central Pacific and you’ve got maybe 4,000 fishing boats out there at any one time, some in the high seas and some in EEZs, with different roles and regulations applying to them, just monitoring the fishery is a massive challenge.

“But I have seen this region slowly but surely rise to this challenge over the past two decades both in understanding what needs to be done and in taking the necessary management actions. This gives me enormous optimism for the fisheries in this region”.

“If they can keep going the way they are, and if they can maintain their dedication and interest in managing the fisheries, and with further advances in the science and our knowledge, then I think the Pacific oceanic fisheries stands every chance of remaining in good shape into the foreseeable future.

“The one overriding concern that remains, however, must be the monitoring of the impacts from climate change and being able to adaptively manage the fishery and the potential socioeconomic effects in the region that climate change can cause.”

The Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) is managing and administering the Oceanic Fisheries Management Project (OFMP2), which is being implemented jointly by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on behalf of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which provides the funding support.

The OFMP2 builds on previous GEF support that assisted the region in developing and adopting the Convention and then assisted with building the foundations, institutions and capacity for more sustainable Pacific fisheries management.

The objective of OFMP2 is to: support Pacific SIDS in meeting their obligations to implement and effectively enforce global, regional and sub-regional arrangements for the conservation and management of transboundary oceanic fisheries thereby increasing sustainable benefits derived from these fisheries.

Author: Jenni Metcalfe

I am founder and director of Econnect Communication. Our company is a team of talented and skilled science communicators. Our vision is to 'bring science to life'.