Overfishing threatens Pacific island nations’ way of life, prosperity and ultimately sovereignty
Capt. Robert T. Hendrickson/U.S. Coast Guard
Tuna is a dietary mainstay for hundreds of millions of people worldwide and also the key economic engine in many countries scattered across the tuna belt in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.
Some 60 percent of tuna at market today globally — from bigeye sashimi to canned skipjack — comes from the tuna belt, which spans 5 degrees north and south of the equator.
Many Pacific island nations are especially dependent on these fisheries for their prosperity and sovereignty. In Kiribati, for example, fish accounts for 28.8 percent of all protein in the diet and 55.8 percent of animal protein consumed. The numbers are similar for other Pacific island nations in the region, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Agency.
Revenues from fishing account for 64 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) of Kiribati, 46 percent of Tuvalu’s GDP, 32 percent of the Marshall Islands’ GDP and 24.4 percent of Micronesia’s GDP, according to a World Bank report. Moreover, 33 percent of Tonga’s population is employed in some part of the fisheries sector. That number is 42 percent for Samoa.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing
Overfishing could be putting future food security and economic sovereignty in jeopardy for these nations. Fishers are harvesting and not reporting more than 30 percent of the annual quota for tuna in the region, according to separate studies by the World Bank, Pew Charitable Trusts, the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) and the European Union, among others. Overharvesting sexually mature fish can cause a fish stock to collapse by depleting brood stock and causing a precipitous decline in spawn.
Given the stakes, Indo-Pacific countries must work together to protect this precious resource and stabilize the region. The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) and FFA are the key agencies charged with managing fish populations in the region and controlling illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
The highly migratory patterns of tuna stocks make managing fisheries more challenging. A tuna swimming in Kiribati’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) today could be swimming in the Marshall Islands’ EEZ tomorrow or somewhere else on the high seas. This unfettered movement between jurisdictions creates a challenging enforcement landscape. Many species, including tuna, are being overfished in the region and globally.
IUU fishing contributes to tensions in the region and beyond. IUU fishing robs Pacific island nations collectively of more than U.S. $600 million per year in revenue, a 2016 FFA report determined. That stolen sum is a substantial amount, given that a nation such as Kiribati has a GDP that runs roughly U.S. $200 million per year. Only 20 percent of tuna caught in the region is by Pacific island fleets, according to Greenpeace New Zealand.
Fishing, however, is more than just about food security. It’s a way of life for citizens in the region, and it’s also the basis for economic sovereignty.
Healthy fish stocks are directly linked to food security, economic security and regional theater security, as countless incidents reveal. Food scarcity contributes to myriad stability issues. It is a leading cause for mass migration of populations, which can contribute to transnational criminal enterprises, such as those engaged in human trafficking, to establish a foothold in an area.
Somali fishermen turned to piracy off the Horn of Africa after foreign distant-water fishers illegally overfished the Somali EEZ and caused a fishery collapse. A conflict between Iceland and the United Kingdom erupted over fishing rights in the late 1970s, and a similar skirmish happened between Canada and Spain in the late 1990s. Overfishing has also caused increased tensions in recent years in the South China Sea between various Southeast Asian nations and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that stake rival claims to the fisheries. The PRC has aggressively harassed Vietnamese and Philippine fishermen, for instance.
The collapse of fish stock could cause an economic crash in many of these Pacific island states. Their economic dependency on the health of fish stocks makes these strategically important states extremely vulnerable to checkbook and debt-book diplomatic tactics such as those employed by the PRC. It also increases their susceptibility to piracy, violent extremism, transnational criminal organizations and other destabilizing elements.
Responsible fishing nations must come together to combat the unreported overfishing occurring in territorial waters of Pacific island nations. Cooperative regional management could go a long way toward making the tuna belt sustainable. Allies and partners can help build effective maritime governance and engender political will within the region. The international community has placed much effort on building capacity and capability to conduct surveillance and enforcement boardings. The latest high-tech surveillance systems coupled with the newest and sleekest enforcement vessels, however, have proven ineffective in the absence of a prosecutorial end-game. The conservation and management measures (CMM) of the WCPFC are weak with regard to catch logging and transshipment procedures.
A starting point for combating overfishing is for the responsible fishing nations of the WCPFC to come together and implement strict CMMs regulating catch logging. Further, the WCPFC must implement regulations that prohibit all transshipment on the high seas. Finally, coastal states must adopt and implement similar domestic laws for catch logging and transshipment within their EEZs and have the political will to aggressively prosecute those IUU fishers who violate their laws — essentially robbing them of national revenue.
Many responsible major powers are being proactive in addressing this emerging crisis of overfishing. New Zealand, for instance, deployed a Royal New Zealand Navy patrol ship to support a three-month IUU fishing pulse operation in Fijian waters, enabling over 150 maritime enforcement boardings. Eleven bilateral ship-rider agreements between the U.S. and regional island states enable similar operations. The U.S. also envisions future legal assistance ashore to help ship-rider countries improve their prosecutorial capacity.
Australia, France, New Zealand and the United States have worked together with Pacific island countries and territories for many years to build maritime domain awareness and security capacities and capabilities. Japan and Canada are also working in this trade space.
The South Pacific Tuna Treaty, an ongoing agreement between the United States and 16 Pacific island countries, entered into force in 1988 and has lasted more than 30 years with extensions in 1993 and 2002. In December 2016, participating nations updated the treaty to modernize the way U.S. fishing vessels secure access to the productive tuna fishing waters of the treaty nations. The treaty, a model of international and fishery cooperation, has helped establish fisheries observer and data reporting requirements, as well as monitoring, control and surveillance standards for the region’s fisheries.
More work is needed to build on these types of initiatives. Other responsible, distant water fishing nations need to take a more stringent stand against vessels illegally fishing and transshipping under their flags to ensure the long-term sustainability of the region’s primary regional economic driver — tuna. The tuna outlook is closely tied to the overall future of the Indo-Pacific. As go the economies of Pacific island nations, so goes the theater security of the region.
Stock Collapse Case Study
Consider the case of the Central Bering Sea pollock in the “Donut Hole.” The area can be found in international waters slightly larger than the Mediterranean Sea, between Alaska and Russia. The Russian and U.S. exclusive economic zones encircle the Donut Hole, but it is legally international waters and therefore open to fishers from any country. It was rich in pollock, a fish used for everything from fertilizer to fish sandwiches. International fleets relentlessly fished the Donut Hole’s pollock stock from 1983 until 1993. At their peak in 1989-90, pollock landings topped 1.4 million metric tons. In 1990-91, landings struggled to reach 300,000 metric tons. The following year, the stock crashed due to overfishing. As of 2016, the time of the most recent survey, the stock remains depleted.