New Study Finds Warming Waters Pushing Tuna Away from Reliant Pacific Nations

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A new study released by Conservation International found that tuna populations will likely be pushed from the waters of 10 Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS) due to climate change. For nations that rely on tuna as a source of food and income, the consequences could be devastating.

Conservation International urges the global community to consider ecosystem shifts like this one as environmental justice issues and ensure the balance between natural resources and Pacific Island economies.

Why This Matters: Johann Bell, the lead author of the study and the Senior Director of Tuna Fisheries at Conservation International’s Center for Oceans, explained the situation to ODP.

Many Pacific Island countries and territories have an extraordinary dependence on tuna for economic development,” he said. “The income they receive from their well-managed tuna resources is essential for supporting their health systems, education systems, and infrastructure.”

That infrastructure will soon include life-saving climate adaptation measures.

Bell said, “as the populations of these states continue to grow, the rich tuna resources of the region will need to play an increasingly important role in the food security of the wider Pacific Island community.”

Big Tuna: The collaborative study with the Pacific Community (SPC), the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), the Parties to the Nauru Agreement Office (PNAO), and the University of Wollongong found that warming waters are driving tuna populations to the high seas. Scientific models reported that, at the current rate of warming, tuna catch rates in the combined waters of the 10 SIDS could decline by an average of 20% by 2050. This could threaten the more than 20,000 jobs supported by tuna processing, harvesting, and the governance of fishing operations.

Not only do many SIDS rely on tuna for their fishing industries, but they also rely on selling access permits to distant waters fishing fleets. Those permits will be obsolete, however, if tuna populations move to the high seas.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, the CEO of PNAO.

Bell and other leaders say that this is an environmental justice issue. “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 study identified routes to limit tuna migration out of the region:

  • Implementing action plans from the largest GHG emitters to curb emissions and limit global warming to 1.5°C by meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement.
  • Enabling Pacific SIDS to negotiate through the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) to maintain the benefits from tuna even as climate change impacts the distribution of the fish.

Stuart Minchin, the Director-General of SPC, hopes to shed light on this issue at COP26 in Glasgow. “We strongly hope that it will lead to concrete commitments by the COP and the UNFCCC architecture, including its financing mechanisms.”

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