By NETANI RIKA in Port Moresby
THE world has gathered in Madrid, Spain to discuss the existential threat which climate change presents to the environment through rising temperatures and melting ice.
Halfway across the globe, the guardians of Pacific fisheries are seated in an indoor stadium to discuss the impact climate change has had on the region’s most important resource – tuna.
The Pacific accounts for roughly half of the global tuna market which is worth around $USD42 million each year. Fishing companies were paid $USD10 billion for 4.99 million tons of tuna landed on docks around the world in 2014.
That product was worth $USD42 billion after processing. It has been suggested that the total value of landed tuna to the Pacific is $USD5 billion and $USD22billion after processing.
Much of the Pacific’s tuna stocks of Skipjack, Yellowfin and Big Eye are caught between Papua New Guinea in the West and Kiribati in the East.
But as the Pacific Ocean grows warmer, it is expected that the tuna will begin to move further East.
PNG Fisheries Minister, Dr Lino Tom, told local journalists that Skipjack and Yellowfin stocks in the country’s EEZ could drop by as much as 37 per cent by 2050.
That would mean a market worth $USD128.8 million in 2016 could bring in only $USD81.1 million by the middle of this century.
Studies by the Food and Agriculture Organisation show that Skipjack and yellowfin which make up the vast majority of the Pacific catch tend to shift from PNG and the Federated States of Micronesia towards Kiribati and Tuvalu.
But if global temperatures continue their steady rise and an estimate two to three-degree Celsius increase over current levels, even Kiribati and Tuvalu can see the impact on their stocks.
Tuvalu Fisheries Minister, Alapati Taupo, was forthright in his views on rising temperatures.
“As the climate warms, oceanic conditions change to provide more frequent and eventually permanent El Nino conditions,” Taupo said at the 16th Regular Session of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.
“In the short term this is good for Tuvalu. There is more tuna in our waters in El Nino years. In the longer term … the main fishing areas are expected to move out of our EEZ and into the Eastern High Seas pocket and eventually into the Eastern Pacific.’’
That would mean a huge loss of income to a small country heavily reliant on tuna for its foreign revenue through licences to fishing vessels which raked in $USD24 million.
Tuvalu’s tuna sales have been estimated at a further US$198 million.
With the looming threat of tuna migration due to warmer oceans, Taupo was clear about the effects of such a move.
“Climate change is not a problem that Tuvalu has caused but we are going to suffer the effects,” he said.
But for Tuvalu the tuna migration is only part of the problem faced by its fishery due to climate change. Rising temperatures means rising sea levels.
“If the islands and reefs go completely under water, we may lose our EEZs,” Taupo said.
“Our EEZ is defined by the edge of the reef at low tide. As sea levels rise these baselines move back, reducing the size of our EEZ.
“Warmer water and higher acidity of seawater will result in the destruction of our coral reefs which are the habitat for most of our important inshore food fish.
“It may also affect the success of fish breeding and the growth of shellfish.’’
Tuvalu estimates that on the current trend, production of inshore fishery will fall by 65 per cent by 2100 because of climate change.
Taupo suggested that current global arrangements be changed to prevent what he described as an injustice.
“In fisheries terms this would mean the boundaries of our EEZ are locked in and not changed as a result of climate change-induced sea level rise,” he said.
This would mean Tuvalu’s right to harvest tuna could be retained on the high seas when the fish moved.
Tuvalu has started discussions on changes to EEZ boundary definitions under United Nations conventions, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Driven by rising sea levels and global warming, Tuvalu will press for its boundaries to be defined by degrees of latitude and longitude rather than geographical features which may be lost under water.
The need for clearly defined national borders to exist well after the possible disappearance of the Pacific’s smaller nations is a matter of concern for many.
And some small island developing states believe that there is a need for greater attention to this issue by international organisations and countries outside the Pacific.
Kiribati’s Fisheries Minister, Tetabo Nakara, recognised the threat faced by his island neighbour.
“Climate change is an existential threat to our region, and directly threatens our livelihoods, security and wellbeing. We need action on climate change to be a primary concern in all fields (aspects),” Nakara said.
While Nakara’s call for action was directed at the WCPFC and the Forum Fisheries Agency, he deftly linked the fisheries climate change problems to COP25 in Madrid.
“It is fitting that on the other side of the world in Madrid, the 25th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC is convening this week. How wonderful it would be if this commission could adopt the climate change resolution as a contribution of the WCPFC to addressing this matter,” he said.
On two sides of the world, leaders meet this week, their discussions linked by climate change.
If the COP 25 meeting in Madrid does not take credible steps to reduce global warming, efforts by the WCPFC delegates to control and maintain tuna stocks may be in vain.