Pacific Island countries urged to increase tuna consumption
Solomon Islands fish market. Credit: Professor Johann Bell
David Hayes looks at what fish can do to combat obesity and diabetes in Pacific Island countries.
The Western and Central
Pacific Ocean’s large tuna resources are providing major economic benefits to Pacific Island
countries and territories (PICTs) through the sale of fishing licenses to
distant water tuna fishing fleet owners from East Asia, Europe and the United
States, and growing tuna canning and
But while living standards
are improving in many PICTs, concern has increased over the development of the
world’s highest levels of obesity and diabetes in Pacific
Island countries during
the past decade - a trend that can be combatted by a return to a healthier
traditional diet, including more tuna and local fish species.
In a new research paper
published in the journal Marine Policy,
Volume 51 (2015), a research team led by the Secretariat of the
Pacific Community (SPC) and the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources
and Security at Wollongong University in New South Wales has highlighted the
detrimental impact on public health of rising consumption of imported
high-calorie, non-indigenous foods.
A healthy solution to the
problem could be at hand, as the team has identified an opportunity for Pacific Island governments
to increase the supply of tuna to their domestic markets which should help
boost fish consumption in these traditionally fish-loving island states and
Collecting data forms part
of SPC’s wider work brief which includes providing technical support for the
development of agriculture, forestry, fisheries, public health, population
growth assessments, energy supplies and transport among the 22 PICTs, that
consist of 14 independent member countries and eight territories.
“How can Pacific
countries maximise the socio-economic benefits from fish? As fish are a major
source of protein for Pacific Island people, the big question is where will the
fish come from in future to feed rapidly growing populations?” commented the
lead author of Diversifying the use of
tuna to improve food security and public health in Pacific Island countries and
territories, Johann Bell, Visiting Professor at the Australian National
Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, and consultant to Conservation
International’s Global Tuna Initiative.
“A feature of many Pacific Islands is
that most of the population still lives a subsistence lifestyle. The SPC
surveys helped identify the quantities of fish being caught in the Pacific Islands
for local consumption.”
Fishing is a traditional
occupation among Pacific Island communities
which engage mostly in coastal fishing activities. With a growing
population of 10.5 million people living on its scattered islands, the Western
and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) is an important source of tuna for
world markets. The tuna harvest in the region is about 1.5 million
metric tons (mt) per year, accounting for about 30% of the total annual global
Most tuna caught is
exported, some loined or in cans, the rest whole, to major tuna markets in East
Asia, the United States and
Some of the skipjack tuna,
the most abundant tuna species in the WCPO, are exported to General Santos in
the Philippines and
to Thailand for
processing and canning. Higher-value tuna species including bigeye, albacore
and sashimi grade yellowfin are exported whole direct to Japan.
In addition to tuna caught
in their exclusive economic zones, the Pacific Island
countries and territories also have a traditional coastal fisheries
sector, based mainly on fish species associated with coral reefs, that is
estimated to produce about 150,000 mt/year across all PICTs members combined.
The size of the annual coastal fish catch varies widely among the various countries and territories due to their different geographical locations and the extent of their coral reefs.
Fish is popular among all Pacific Island communities.
Most fish are cooked whole and both the body and head are consumed, which means
that around 80% of the total fish weight is used for food.
“There are big variations in fish consumption between Pacific Island nations, and between rural and urban communities,” Professor Bell explained. In some atoll countries per capita fish consumption is over 100kg per year; whereas in some of the larger Melanesian countries, such as Fiji and Papua New Guinea, average national per capita fish intake is less than 35kg.
The Public Health Division of SPC has recommended that Pacific Island people should eat 35kg of fish per person per year (twice the global average) due to their limited access to other sources of protein.
Urbanisation is one of the
factors that have led to the development of some dietary problems among Pacific
islanders in recent years.
“When people move to urban
areas they can buy cheap, energy-dense, nutrient-poor food which is causing all
sorts of health problems, so if governments can make access to tuna and other
fish easier it will help to provide a more nutritious national diet,” Professor
As noted already, the 22
PICTs have an estimated combined population totalling more than 10.5 million
people. Papua New Guinea is
the largest with about 7.3 million people, followed by Fiji with
880,000 and the Solomon
Islands with 560,000. Other Pacific Island populations
are smaller and range from about 65 people in the Pitcairn Islands up
to 280,000 in French Polynesia.
SPC research shows that
fisheries are of major importance to all Pacific Island communities;
for example, around 50% of coastal households rely on fishing and fishery
related activities for their first or second income, while almost all coastal
households rely on fish for a major portion of their animal protein intake.
“There’s a huge
dependency on fish and rapid population growth,” notes Professor Bell. “Coastal
fisheries are multi-species; there are over a 100 species commonly caught in
remote areas, with often little data on catch rates.
“This makes reliable estimates
of sustainable production difficult. Instead, we use the figure of 3mt per year
per square kilometre of reef from a global study to estimate sustainable
catches from coastal fisheries.”
Forecasts of the availability of reef fish supplies per capita based on the 3 mt/year per square kilometre thumb rule vary widely among the PICTs depending on their reef area, population size and population growth rate.
In spite of the island countries and territories being surrounded by the vast Pacific Ocean, the forecasts show that per capita fish consumption will decline in some PICTs unless practical steps are taken to increase the supply of fishery products.
Three groups of PICTs have
been identified through reviewing their future fish consumption needs.
The first group consisting
of the Cook Islands, Marshall Islands, New
and Tokelau each produce sufficient reef fish for local consumption needs at
present and are expected to continue supplying adequate coastal fish in 20 years’
The second group consisting
of Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji,
French Polynesia, Niue, Tonga, Tuvalu,
and Wallis and Futuna, also are expected to continue producing sufficient reef
fish supplies for the next 20 years but will face difficulties supplying fish
to their urban communities due to logistics problems transporting fish from
The nine remaining PICTs
forming the third group, meanwhile, are all expected to be unable to supply 35kg
of fish per person per year from their coastal fisheries.
New Guinea, which has a reef area capable of
producing about 99,000mt of coastal fish a year, the shortfall in fish
recommended for good nutrition of urban and coastal communities is expected to
be 18,000mt in 2020, rising to 74,000mt in 2035.
Vanuatu, which can
only produce about 3,700mt of coastal fish per year due to the limited area of
coral reef, is expected to have a 7,000mt deficit in 2020 rising to 10,400mt in
2035. Solomon Islands, which has the potential to produce about 28,000mt of reef
fish a year, is likely to develop an 8,000mt annual shortage by 2035.
Six other PICTs in this
group - American Samoa, Commonwealth of
the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Kiribati, Nauru and
Samoa, are expected to record annual coastal
fish production deficits from about 1,000mt to almost 7,000mt each by 2035.
Firstly, management of
coastal fisheries will need to be improved to ensure that coral reef systems
produce their full potential fish harvests, as such action will minimise the
size of the fish supply gap to be filled.
Secondly, Pacific Island governments
will need to allocate more of their abundant tuna resources to their domestic
markets to fill the gap, Professor Bell noted.
The third area requiring
government support is the development of aquaculture systems for tilapia to
provide an alternative source of fish when insufficient reef fish or tuna are
available to meet individual Pacific Island needs.
By 2020 the 22 PICTs
combined are forecasted to require about 32,000mt per year of tuna to fill the
fish supply gap, equivalent to 2.1% of their total annual tuna catch. The
quantity increases to 87,000mt in 2035, representing 5.9% of the average
regional tuna catch.
Papua New Guinea,
which has the largest tuna catch in the Western and Central Pacific (averaging
598,000mt per year) will need to provide about 18,000mt of tuna in 2020 to fill
the gap in recommended domestic fish supply, rising to 63,000mt in 2035,
equivalent to around 10.6% of its annual tuna catch.
Kiribati, which is
the second largest tuna producer with an average annual catch totalling 330,000mt
per year, will need to provide about 4,900mt in 2020 to fill its own fish
supply gap, rising to 6,400mt in 2035, equivalent to around 1.9% of its annual
which has the third largest tuna catch averaging 145,000mt/year will need to
provide about 8,000mt/year by 2035 to fill its own gap, equivalent to 5.5% of
its annual tuna catch.
Other PICTs with combined tuna catches totalling 425,000mt/year, taken
mostly by licensed foreign distant water fishing fleets, will need to provide
about 9,000mt of tuna to their domestic markets to fill their gap in 2020,
rising to 10,000mt/year by 2035.
“Allocating more tuna to national food security is one thing, making tuna easier for rural and urban communities to catch or buy is another,” commented Professor Bell.
To boost the coastal waters tuna catch, the research team has encouraged Pacific Island governments to increase the number of nearshore fish aggregating devices (FADS) that are deployed. These devices allow coastal communities to catch tuna more easily because the fish stay in the vicinity of a FAD for two or three days before moving on.
Professor Bell also pointed
out that FADs can often be placed close enough to the shore so that coastal
fishermen can still use non-motorised fishing craft to reach them – something
that is important for subsistence fishers in remote areas where fuel is
Pacific Island governments also can use the tuna transhipment process in their ports to increase the supply of low cost fish to urban populations.
All purse-seine vessels are
required to land their catch first in a Pacific Island
port before it is transferred to a fish cargo vessel used to send it to a
The ban on discarding small
tuna at sea by purse-seine fishing fleets means that considerable volumes of
small tuna of limited value to canneries are available for offloading in urban
centres. Supplies of fish could be boosted further if discarding of bycatch was
There is also a need to increase fish supply to the large inland population in Papua New Guinea. Some options include increasing the availability of locally canned tuna by using some of the fishing license revenue to help distribute it to the highlands and adapting fishing license conditions to ensure that local canneries receive sufficient tuna supplies to operate efficiently.
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