Warming Waters Threaten Tuna-Dependent Economies in the Pacific

STUDY – Climate change is driving tuna further to the east, threatening the economic security of several small island states

Global warming is expected to progressively push tuna populations from the waters of 10 Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS)* into the high seas, disrupting island economies, according to a new collaborative study by Conservation International and a consortium of technical agencies, including The Pacific Community (SPC), the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), the Parties to the Nauru Agreement Office (PNAO), the University of Wollongong and their partners.

The research, published today in the journal Nature Sustainability explores the impacts of ocean warming on tuna and quantifies the potential financial losses that these Pacific SIDS are likely to incur as tuna are redistributed due to climate change.

The robust modelling done during the multi-disciplinary study demonstrates that if ocean warming continues at current rates the tuna catch in the combined waters of the 10 Pacific SIDS is expected to decline by an average of 20% by 2050.

“This is a climate justice issue,” said Johann Bell, lead author and the Senior Director of Tuna Fisheries at Conservation International’s Center for Oceans. “The 10 Pacific SIDS have a deep economic dependence on tuna fishing but contribute little to global warming. In contrast, nations responsible for 60% of historical greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would benefit from the migration of tuna to the high seas.”

“The new modelling shows for the first time that tuna catches are likely to decrease in each of the 10 Pacific SIDS by 2050 under a high GHG scenario,” said Simon Nicol, Principal Fisheries Scientist (Fisheries and Ecosystem Monitoring and Analysis) at SPC. “Previous modelling indicated that some of the 10 Pacific SIDS would be losers and others would be winners from tuna redistribution. This new study demonstrates that all of the 10 tuna-dependent economies will be negatively impacted.”

The lower tuna catches are expected to reduce the access fees that Pacific SIDS receive from distant-water fishing nations to operate in their waters, resulting in annual losses of total government revenue in the range of 8-17% for some Pacific SIDS by 2050 under a high emissions scenario.

Such losses, according to the Director General of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, Manu Tupou-Roosen, will have serious consequences for governments and Pacific people, who depend on tuna revenue to support livelihoods and vital programs in key sectors such as education and health. “The losses are also expected to reduce the financial flexibility needed to assist communities to adapt to climate change,” she said.

 The study identifies two pathways that would likely limit the impacts of tuna migration on the region:

  • Implementing ambitious action plans from the largest GHG emitters to curb emissions and limit global warming to 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Agreement. This would largely prevent redistribution of tuna.
  • Enabling Pacific SIDS to negotiate, through the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), to maintain the benefits they receive from tuna, regardless of the effects of climate change on the distribution of the fish.

“Pacific SIDs are disproportionately suffering from a crisis for which they are hardly responsible. Tuna redistribution is one of the many consequences of climate change, which is expected to further weaken Pacific economies and important food systems already heavily impacted by COVID-19. This critical situation has already been raised in several international fora including the UN Security Council and will be highlighted by the Pacific Island region at COP26 in Glasgow, and we strongly hope that it will lead to concrete commitments by the COP and the UNFCCC architecture including its financing mechanisms” said Stuart Minchin, Director General of SPC.

The study also shows that tuna redistribution has implications for management of one of the world’s largest fisheries.

“When tuna move from the exclusive economic zones of Pacific SIDS to the high seas, it is more difficult to enforce the regulations designed to sustain the stocks and the economies that rely on them,” said Sangaalofa Clark, CEO of the Office of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement – the Pacific Island countries that have implemented the world-class ‘vessel day scheme’ to manage tuna catches sustainably within their combined waters.

According to Quentin Hanich from the University of Wollongong, the implications of tuna redistribution are potentially severe and need to be addressed through cooperative management consistent with the international legal framework. “The WCPFC, has already begun to consider such issues and adopted a Resolution on Climate Change in 2019,” he said.

 New levels of co-operation between the two regional fisheries management organizations responsible for regulating tuna fishing in the high-seas areas of the Western and Central Pacific Ocean and in the Eastern Pacific Ocean will also be needed to ensure a balance that benefits both natural resources and Pacific Island economies.

The study, Pathways to sustaining tuna-dependent Pacific Island economies during climate change was co-authored by scientists and other experts from 21 institutions. It is dedicated to the late Sue Taei, former Executive Director of Conservation International’s programs in the Pacific Island region, and the first person to call for an investigation of the climate justice implications of tuna redistribution.

* The 10 SIDs included in this study are: Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu.

Arlington, VA / Noumea, New Caledonia / Honiara, Solomon Islands / Wollongong, Australia: July 30, 2021
Media Contacts:

Jessica Brown
Media Relations Specialist,
Conservation International, Washington DC
[email protected] 734-748-7361

About Conservation International

Conservation International works to protect the critical benefits that nature provides to people. Through science, partnerships and fieldwork, Conservation International is driving innovation and investments in nature-based solutions to the climate crisis, supporting protections for critical habitats, and fostering economic development that is grounded in the conservation of nature. Conservation International works in 30 countries around the world, empowering societies at all levels to create a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable planet. Follow Conservation International’s work on Conservation NewsFacebookTwitterInstagram and YouTube.

To honour Sue Taei’s contribution to the region, Conservation International and Nia Tero have established the Sue Taei Ocean Fellowship for Indigenous Women of the Pacific

Toky Rasoloarimanana
Communications Officer
Fisheries, Aquaculture and Marine Ecosystems Division, Pacific Community
e: [email protected] Mob: +687  89 93 94

About the Pacific Community (SPC)

The Pacific Community has been supporting sustainable development in the Pacific, through science, knowledge and innovation since 1947. It is the principal intergovernmental organisation in the region, owned and governed by its 27 member countries and territories. Follow SPC News | Facebook | TwitterLinkedIn | Instagram | YouTube and subscribe to SPC Newsletter

Samantha Mattila
FFA Strategic Communications Manager
[email protected] Mob: +61 434 567 673

About the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA)

FFA assists its 17-member countries to sustainably manage fishery resources that fall within their 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). FFA provides expertise, technical assistance and other support to its members who make decisions about their tuna resources and participate in regional decision making on tuna management. 

About PNAO
The Office of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement works to support and assist PNA countries in achieving and maintaining ecologically sustainable tuna fisheries that are tightly controlled and managed through cooperation and that generate diverse maximum economic and social benefits to Parties. By creating an enabling environment for opportunities through the VDS and other commercial avenues, and representing and advocating for Parties at regional fora, the PNAO empowers Parties to successfully work together in solidarity and cooperation, including through the crisis of climate change. 

About University of Wollongong

The University of Wollongong is a research-intensive university with an outstanding reputation for its learning environments across a broad range of disciplines. Our commitment to our students is evident in our graduates, who are recognised for their capability, quality and success in the global workplace. We value our research capacity to work on complex interdisciplinary problems. Our spirit of inquiry drives our research and learning environments and our objective of earning a place in the top 1% of the world’s universities. Follow UOW  here: uow.edu.au | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | LinkedIn

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