Pacific Island countries urged to increase tuna consumption

Solomon Islands fish market. Credit: Professor Johann Bell 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 processing operations. 

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 territories. 

The decision to initiate the research paper project followed from the results of earlier surveys conducted by SPC during the past decade looking into Pacific Island peoples’ food consumption patterns. 

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 tuna catch. 

Industrial tuna fishing is carried out mostly by modern foreign distant water fishing fleets. These operate under various regulations and agreements established by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, the Parties to the Nauru Agreement Office, and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, in what are arguably some of the best cooperative fisheries management arrangements for shared stocks in the world. 

Most tuna caught is exported, some loined or in cans, the rest whole, to major tuna markets in East Asia, the United States and Europe. 

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 Bell said. 

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 Caledonia, Palau, 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’ time. 

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 remote reefs. 

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. 

In Papua 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. 

Professor Bell and colleagues have identified three priority areas of action for Pacific Island governments to focus on to prevent these shortages in fish supply from occurring or becoming worse. 

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 tuna catch. 

Solomon Islands, 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 expensive. 

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 cannery.  

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 also banned. 

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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