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El Niño creates tuna bonanza for Kiribati

Thursday 10 December 2015 | Published in Regional

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SOUTH TARAWA – As Kiribati battles to save its islands from climate change-induced rising sea levels and drought, in an ironic twist the strongest El Niño in nearly 20 years is providing it with an economic bonanza in tuna.

The warming of the Pacific Ocean due to the El Niño weather system has sent tuna schools migrating away from traditional waters near Papua New Guinea and toward Kiribati to the east, allowing the island nation to sell access rights to international fishing firms in excess of $15,000 a day.

The Asian Development Bank this week estimated Kiribati will earn a record A$150 million during 2015 from fishing licences alone, about twice the amount projected at the start of the year, and equivalent to nearly 80 per cent of gross domestic product.

“The catch data shows that in 2014, catches around Papua New Guinea were down, while around Kiribati – they were through the roof, and that is a sign of El Niño,” said Professor Quentin Hanich, University of Wollongong in Australia.

Just over 700,000 tonnes of tuna were caught in Kiribati’s waters in 2014, more than double the amount caught one year earlier and twice as much as Papua New Guinea.

Data for 2015 is not yet available, but scientists expect the trend to be even larger.

Tuna fishing is the Pacific’s greatest natural resource, accounting for about 60 per cent of all tuna caught globally, according to data from the Secretariat of Pacific Community.

Kiribati’s total land mass is only about 800 square kms and on average is just two metres above sea level. It has seen the ocean swallow large chunks of its coastline, creating the prospect it may become the first nation to be a casualty of global warming.

The current El Niño has bought widespread drought, stoking shortages of food staples and shrinking drinking water supplies.

In contrast to other Pacific island nations, which boast mining, agriculture and tourism industries, Kiribati’s economy relies almost entirely on its fishing industry. “If that disappears, the country disappears with it,” said Hanich.

Kiribati earns the majority of its revenue from licensing overseas fishing vessels, predominantly from the European Union, Korea, the United States, Japan and China, selling access days to fish in its waters.

Its watery exclusive economic zone is one of the largest in the Pacific, spanning 3.6 million square kilometres.

Although it has not yet revealed how many days it has sold in 2015, fees to fish its fertile waters have more than tripled between 2012 and 2015, and now top $15,000 per day.

- Reuters