Report

How Eight Pacific Island States Are Saving the World’s Tuna

They have created a strikingly successful scheme that prevents overfishing and raises local incomes at once.

A fisherman holds a batch of tuna in Kiribati, where fishing is one of the most common occupations, on Sept. 25, 2015.
A fisherman holds a batch of tuna in Kiribati, where fishing is one of the most common occupations, on Sept. 25, 2015. Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

They control the richest tuna waters on the planet, an area of the Pacific roughly one-and-a-half times the size of the United States. But 10 years ago, eight island states in whose waters most of the world’s canned tuna is fished were seeing almost none of the profits. In 2011, however, they scored a striking success for small-state diplomacy when they devised a system to raise the fees foreign fleets were paying them for the privilege of fishing in their exclusive economic zones, which extend 200 nautical miles off their coasts. At the time, all they got was a scandalously low fraction of the tuna’s value—as little as 2.5 percent.

Today, the eight island nations have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They increased their take tenfold—from $50 million in 2010 to around $500 million last year. Not only did they grow their income, but they also imposed controls that stabilized catch rates and prevented overfishing, a rare success story in a world where ravaging the oceans is still the brutal norm. “They’ve been very clever,” said Glen Holmes, an officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries program.

They control the richest tuna waters on the planet, an area of the Pacific roughly one-and-a-half times the size of the United States. But 10 years ago, eight island states in whose waters most of the world’s canned tuna is fished were seeing almost none of the profits. In 2011, however, they scored a striking success for small-state diplomacy when they devised a system to raise the fees foreign fleets were paying them for the privilege of fishing in their exclusive economic zones, which extend 200 nautical miles off their coasts. At the time, all they got was a scandalously low fraction of the tuna’s value—as little as 2.5 percent.

Today, the eight island nations have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They increased their take tenfold—from $50 million in 2010 to around $500 million last year. Not only did they grow their income, but they also imposed controls that stabilized catch rates and prevented overfishing, a rare success story in a world where ravaging the oceans is still the brutal norm. “They’ve been very clever,” said Glen Holmes, an officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries program.

Six members of the agreement are microstates scattered between the Philippines and Hawaii: Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Tuvalu. The other two are much bigger: Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, both closer to Australia.

The tuna fees have turned from relatively small change to serious income—and for some of the smaller states, it’s virtually the only non-aid source of foreign exchange. They were therefore highly motivated to make the system sustainable in the long run. For that, they had to make sure the foreign fleets did not do in their waters what they have done almost everywhere else: take too many fish, thereby reducing some populations like the bluefin tuna to 3 percent of their original numbers.

As a result, the group—formally known as the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA)—have become a global model showing how poor, culturally disparate, and isolated small countries can take on the likes of the United States, China, and the European Union—and win. Some are now saying other countries whose waters have been plundered by foreign fleets, such as the nations on West Africa’s coast, should copy the PNA and do the same. Others hope the weak international bodies trying to manage fishing in the Indian, Atlantic, and Eastern Pacific oceans will also emulate them in the decades ahead.


The equatorial belt of the Western and Central Pacific is the single biggest tuna fishery in the world, worth around $6 billion. That’s because half the world’s skipjack tuna—a particularly tasty and prolific species—calls it home. About 1.5 million tons are fished there every year, virtually all of it ending up in cans. Canned tuna is one of the world’s most affordable proteins because it is caught by a method that is both relentlessly efficient and biologically absurd.

Like most tuna, skipjack—which average under 2 feet long and around 10 pounds—travel in schools. When they come across schools of smaller fish, such as anchovies, they drive them to the surface and gobble them up, attracting seabirds that are then spotted by sharp-eyed ship captains. Fishermen speed to the feeding frenzy and encircle it with huge nets, known as purse seines, that close up at the bottom and are craned into the ship’s hold. The catch is so big that the skipjack at the bottom get crushed, but no one cares because they will end up in small pieces in cans.

For reasons that are poorly understood, skipjack schools also like to congregate around floating objects—logs, barrels, anything. The purse seiners discovered that setting their nets around these objects yields even bigger catches, sometimes reaching 300 tons of fish at once, according to fisheries scientist John Hampton of the Pacific Community in New Caledonia.

But here’s the rub: While the skipjack schools catching anchovies swim mostly alone, the ones circling floating objects attract company—sharks, turtles, and juveniles of other tuna species—that make up 20 percent of the catch. About 3.3 percent of the total is immature bigeye tuna, Hampton explained. That doesn’t seem like much, but more than five times as many bigeyes are caught accidentally as juveniles around floating objects than as adults, which aren’t netted in purse seines but caught by hook-and-line vessels called longliners.

It so happens that when a bigeye grows to its full size of almost 6 feet and 250 pounds (and no longer hangs out around logs), its rich, buttery flavor makes it the most sought-after delicacy for sushi and sashimi lovers after the catastrophically overfished bluefin. Adult bigeye fetches around $6,600 a ton; juvenile bigeye, mixed with skipjack, a paltry $1,300, said Megan Bailey, a fisheries economist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.

In other words, 80 percent of the bigeye die for nothing before they’ve even had a chance to reproduce—simply to line the pockets of the purse seiners who could easily forego floating objects and cast their nets around free-swimming schools of skipjack, which attract no hangers-on. Because canned bigeye doesn’t even taste good, juvenile bigeye end up as cat food or vaguely labeled “light tuna” sold in the developing world. The purse seiners would like to avoid catching them, but it’s irresistibly more profitable to catch skipjack around floating objects than in a free school.

In the early 2000s, things took a turn for the worse with the advent of the so-called fish-aggregating device (FAD)—a floating object with brains. A barrel or two and a bit of netting that attract the fish are equipped with a transponder that transmits its position in a code that only its owner can read.

Soon, they added echo-sounding that automatically estimates how many fish are below, their size, and often their species. Bingo! Fishing became a video game, where ship owners follow their FADs on screens in real time to see how many fish have congregated below each one and order the ship to hop from one to the other. Today, around 80 percent of skipjacks are caught around FADs, killing, in addition to young bigeye tuna, hundreds of other species, including sharks, turtles, and other fish, most of which are tossed overboard.

The scheme stabilized the bigeye population at a relatively healthy 38 percent of its original size.

Although fertile skipjack remained at a relatively healthy 44 percent of the unfished population, the stocks of more slowly reproducing bigeye plummeted.

A decade ago, faced with this situation, the eight members of the PNA (plus the Tokelau Islands, a New Zealand possession) jointly decided that any fishing in their waters would have to jettison the then-current system under which each vessel declared its catch and paid 5 percent of its value to the host country. PNA officials said that fishers grossly underreported their catch, effectively only paying 2.5 percent of its true value and contributing to uncontrolled overfishing of the stock.

Instead, the countries devised a new system known as the Vessel Day Scheme, where vessel owners would bid for each day they wanted to fish. Soon, the PNA countries set a minimum of $8,000 a day; today, the average is closer to $12,000. Under the new scheme, “we sell opportunities to fish, not fish,” said Ludwig Kumoru, the PNA’s CEO. They also banned the use of FADs for three months each year, reducing the senseless slaughter of young bigeye. The move cut the number of purse seiners from 300 to 250, though their daily catch increased on the back of technological advances. The scheme stabilized the bigeye population at a relatively healthy 38 percent of its original size, according to Hampton.

To capitalize on their success, PNA countries created a brand of canned tuna called Pacifical that contains only skipjack caught in free-swimming schools, which have close to zero bigeye bycatch. The brand is already popular in Germany, according to Rainer Froese, a scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany.


Unlike many other small-country governments that suddenly got an oil bonanza or mining windfall and egregiously wasted or stole it, the PNA countries seem to be spending their bonus’ rather wisely, redistributing much of the new income among their populations.

Take Kiribati, a nation of only 117,000 people whose exclusive economic zone is about the size of India and the biggest of the group. The country saw its fishing income rise in the past decade from $27 million in 2008 to $160 million last year—even as it set aside around 11 percent of its EEZ as the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, where it eventually banned all fishing.

Kiribati’s extra income “has made a huge difference in the life of the people,” the country’s former president, Teburoro Tito, told Foreign Policy. He said there are now benefits for the unemployed, pensions for the elderly, stipends for students, and aid for the disabled. In addition, the current administration, led by President Taneti Maamau, has embarked on a bold program to put cash in the pockets of citizens by tripling the price of copra, dried coconut meat. The trees grow on virtually all of the country’s 33 atoll islands and are harvested by a large part of the population. Spending on health—Kiribati suffers from a high incidence of diabetes—and education has soared.

The government is also working on an ambitious plan to dredge sand from the inside lagoon of the ring-shaped atolls and raise the islands in the most populated areas to mitigate the effects of any future sea level rise. Normally, there is little reason to worry about Pacific atolls—storm waves will raise land levels naturally in unpopulated areas, scientists said. “PNA income has provided Kiribati a golden opportunity to show how robust adaptation work can be undertaken to secure the future of small island states,” Paul Kench, the dean of science at Simon Fraser University near Vancouver, Canada, wrote in an email. He is the lead scientist on a research project documenting how atolls react to sea level rise—they rise with it. “Such work would serve as a model for other atoll nations,” he wrote.

When financial and conservation goals coincide, even the unlikeliest players can score major victories.

Rashid Sumaila, a leading fisheries economist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, said the PNA model should be applied to West Africa, where nutrient-rich coastal waters produce exceptional amounts of fish. Unfortunately, he said, coastal states stretching from Mauritania to Nigeria have allowed foreign fleets—mostly Chinese and European ones—to ravage and vastly reduce their fish populations, paying them only between 4 and 8 percent of the landed value of their catch.

Sumaila suggests going to a similar system where vessel days are auctioned to the highest bidder and only boats that continuously report their positions are allowed to operate. That would achieve three goals, he said: “First, you can raise the license fees to a point where it can make a real difference to the economies of these countries. Second, you can reduce overfishing so the fish populations can grow back and local fishers can start getting more fish. And third, you can make a big dent in illegal fishing.”

Quentin Hanich, who studies fisheries governance at the University of Wollongong in Australia, said if the PNA has succeeded in limiting overfishing, “I see no reason why the tuna commissions managing the Indian, Atlantic, and Eastern Pacific fisheries couldn’t adopt their system.”

The PNA’s example shows that when financial and conservation goals coincide, even the unlikeliest players can score major victories.

Christopher Pala, a former New York Times contributor covering the Pacific and Central Asia, now lives in Washington, DC.

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