Half of the world's tuna catch comes from the Western & Central Pacific, providing a critical source of protein and export revenue for Pacific Island Nations.
With most research and fisheries observer programmes currently suspended due to COVID-19, Graham Pilling, the SPC Deputy Director for the Oceanic Fisheries Programme, said the importance of this cruise cannot be overstated.
"These tuna fisheries are worth approximately USD6 billion annually and, along with tourism, are the main income for most Pacific Island Nations. With global tourism effectively shutdown due to COVID-19, the income derived from tuna is even more critical for Pacific economies," he said.
To avoid any potential for COVID-19 transmission to the remote communities of the Pacific the cruise will not make any port calls to Pacific Island Nations. The crew members, including the scientific team, are in isolation for 14 days prior to departure and have undergone COVID-19 virus testing. The vessel will then return directly to Honolulu on October 5, 2020 - 50 days after departure.
The expedition will only sample from the tropical waters of the high seas and the vast Kiribati Exclusive Economic Zone. The cruise will also provide the first opportunity to collect data on tuna sustainability from the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, which was established in 2008.
From 2006 to 2019, SPC has tagged 452,489 tuna and 81,402 tags have been retrieved, generating the most comprehensive data set for tuna management in the world. In addition to monitoring the health of the tuna stocks, Dr Simon Nicol, SPC Principle Fisheries Scientist said the electronic tags inserted into the tuna are also being used to monitor the health of the Pacific Ocean.
Dr Stuart Minchin, the Director-General of the Pacific Community, said this continued research is critical to ensure that the region remains a global leader in sustainable use of its fisheries resources.
"Around 70% of the catch is taken by international fleets and the fees generated by these licenses provides major source of revenue for Pacific governments to support their development goals. The tagging of bigeye and yellowfin tuna in this region is critical for researchers to understand the impacts of the fisheries on these species," he said.
According to SPC’s 2019 Tuna assessment report, four key tuna stocks of yellowfin, big eye, skipjack, albacore are in a healthy state in the Western Central Pacific Ocean region.