Environmental factors, including climate change, are affecting catches for local fishermen and more needs to be done to ensure Pacific tuna stocks remain healthy, says an official with the World Wildlife Fund.
While acknowledging the reported healthy state of regional
tuna stocks, climate change necessitates more conservative catch limits, says a
fisheries expert with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
In responding to questions by Cook Islands News regarding a
recent shortage of fish on Rarotonga, WWF Western and Central Pacific Tuna
programme manager Alfred “Bubba” Cook said he agreed with a government official
that environmental factors “play a role in determining abundance, and,
ultimately, fisheries success”.
“We know that climate change is having a significant impact
across the Pacific, causing changes in distribution of stocks in addition to
negative impacts on the marine ecosystem including coral bleaching and changing
weather patterns,” Cook said.
“Unfortunately, the long term impacts of climate change are
largely unknown, which supports our call for greater precaution in setting
catch limits that support more resilient ecosystems and the fisheries they
A current shortage of fresh fish on the island has been
described by some as the worst in recent memory, with many local eateries
unable to source supplies.
The frustration has made its way to social media, with many
commentators laying the blame on foreign fleets, along with allegations of
overfishing within the Cook Islands exclusive economic zone.
Responding to the situation, Secretary of the Ministry of
Marine Resources (MMR) Pamela Maru refuted allegations of overfishing.
Maru said the low catches currently being reported by local
fishermen were due to environmental conditions that play a major role in seasonal
Regional tuna stocks, including locally popular species such
as Albacore and Yellowfin, have been assessed as “not overfished” by regional
observers, including the Forum Fisheries Agency, of which the Cook Islands is a
member among with most other Pacific Island states.
But Cook said challenges and threats still exist, such as
the activities of longline fleets operated by distant water fishing nations
operating well beyond their own borders.
With few fisheries observers aboard, he said it is easier
for longliners targeting yellowfin and albacore in the South Pacific to engage
in illegal, unreported, or unregulated (IUU) fishing.
Subsidies and transhipment at sea also have the potential to
put stocks under stress.
Cook said while tuna stocks have been assessed as healthy
“according to the best available science and the standards we have set for
determining stock health”, more caution is needed when setting catch limits.
“… we believe that there should be a bigger buffer between
the acceptable maximum limit and where we set our targets for catch, which
keeps more fish in the water for, for instance, domestic commercial fisheries
and local food security.”
In 2020, the Cook Islands had 102 licenced vessels operating within its exclusive economic zone including 66 longliners and 19 purse seiners, which is a reduction from 120 the previous year.
The country collected an estimated $8.6 million in fisheries
revenue in 2020/21 – a reduction from $13.5 million reported for the previous
In assessing fishing revenues for 2020 and beyond, the
2021-22 budget documents tabled in Parliament last month read: “Climatic
conditions compounded by Covid-19 measures have affected fisheries revenue in
the 2020/21 financial year.”
“Strong La Nina climatic conditions in 2020 and the
beginning of 2021 resulted in a westward shift in distribution of skipjack and
tropical tuna stocks, and therefore a significant reduction in the demand for
purchasing purse seine vessel days within the Cook Islands EEZ.”
According to the Forum Fisheries Agency’s (FFA) 2020
“Fishery report card”, $103 million worth of tuna was caught in Cook Islands
waters from 2017-2019, representing just under 2.5 per cent of total catch
value amongst all 15 FFA states from the same period.