Report – By Jean-Noel Royer in Noumea
In the ongoing battle against obesity, heart disease and diabetes in the Pacific region, a new study has revealed that allocating sufficient tuna for local consumption and keeping it affordable could significantly improve health outcomes.
Pacific Island communities have the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the world, primarily because traditional foods such as root crops, fish and shellfish are being replaced by relatively cheap, energy-dense and nutritionally-poor imported foods.
Increased consumption of fish and shellfish, which are rich in protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, is seen as an important part of the solution.
The study, published in the journal Marine Policy, found that by 2020 people in the 22 Pacific Island countries and territories would need 268,000 tonnes of fish a year for food security, increasing to 344,000 tonnes by 2035.
Current total fish consumption is around 210,000 tonnes a year, and most of this fish is caught from coral reefs.
However, coastal fisheries based on coral reefs in many Pacific Island countries and territories do not have the capacity to produce more fish. In fact, there will be fewer reef fish per person as human populations increase.
“A gap is emerging between how much fish can be harvested sustainably from well-managed reefs and the quantity of fish recommended for good nutrition,” said Moses Amos, Director of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community’s (SPC) Fisheries Aquaculture and Marine Ecosystems Division.
Rich tuna resources
“The gap will increase dramatically in some countries in the years ahead. This study shows how the rich tuna resources of the region can be used to fill the gap and supply the fish needed for healthy diets.
“Pacific Island countries and territories derive significant benefits from tuna in terms of government revenue and in the way fishing fleets and canneries contribute to their GDP. We now need to diversify the benefits by taking steps to allocate a suitable portion of the tuna catch to feed our people,” Amos said.
The study argues that the goal of making more tuna available for local food security should be included in regional and national tuna management plans to ensure sufficient quantities are allocated.
It found that relatively small percentages of the average tuna catch from the exclusive economic zones of Pacific Island countries are expected to be needed for food security – about two per cent in 2020, rising to six per cent by 2035. Less than one percent of the average tuna catch is estimated to be used currently for local consumption.
Across the region, tuna will need to provide 12 per cent of the fish required for good nutrition in 2020 and 25 percent in 2035, with fish and shellfish species from coral reef habitats continuing to provide the remainder.
The study involved fisheries and health experts from SPC, Conservation International, University of Wollongong, WorldFish, the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, L’Institut de recherche pour le développement, CSIRO, the University of Washington and Gillett, Preston and Associates.
The study team identified three “vehicles” for increasing local access to tuna: expanding the use of nearshore fish aggregating devices (FADs) to assist small-scale fishers to catch tuna, distributing small tuna and bycatch offloaded by industrial fleets at regional ports, and improving the availability of canned tuna for inland populations.
“As promising as these interventions are, investments and new policies are needed to implement them effectively,” said Dr Johann Bell from Conservation International’s Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans and the University of Wollongong, who led the study.
“Investments in nearshore FADs will be maximised by identifying the best sites, monitoring catches to fine-tune the design and deployment of the devices, providing training in FAD fishing techniques, and harmonising the use of FADs within and between coastal communities,” Dr Bell said.
The industrial fishing exclusion zones around all Pacific Island countries and territories, declared to provide coastal communities with access to tuna, also need to be examined to check whether they are working effectively.
The study also concluded that further improvements to stock assessments of the region’s four species of tuna – skipjack, yellowfin, bigeye and albacore – and more observations about how the ecosystems supporting tuna respond to fishing pressure, climatic variability and climate change, would improve knowledge about the distribution and abundance of tuna and help secure the economic and food security benefits available from these valuable fish.
In conjunction with governments in the region and other prospective partners, SPC is now discussing the investments required to greatly expand the number of nearshore FADs, and to develop the small businesses and infrastructure needed to distribute small tuna and bycatch offloaded by purse-seine vessels at regional ports during transhipping operations.