Scale of Samoa's tuna catch to grow with climate change

Samoa's relatively small local tuna fishing sector does not compare to the industrial scale of Pacific countries farther north, but new research suggests that could change with the climate.

New research from Johann Bell, the Senior Director of Pacific Tuna Fisheries at Conservation International has recently crunched the numbers on what climate change might mean for Pacific governments' bottom lines. 

The findings, which are drawn from recent projections from the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission,  suggest that the movement of fish into cooler waters will increase tuna populations in Samoan waters. 

"The modelling at the moment is showing that Skipjack by [the year] 2050 for Samoa is likely to increase 40 per cent in biomass and Yellowfin by 2050 [will] increase by 20 per cent."

According to a discussion published by Conservation International, this is in keeping with forecasts of fish movements under climate change. 

“Climate change will continue to increase the surface temperature of the ocean and, based on recent modelling, this will cause Skipjack and Yellowfin tuna populations to shift significantly to the east,” he said.

But Dr. Bell cautioned against welcoming the findings, noting that Samoa's tuna population was "starting from a very low base" and saying that climate change will pose a food security challenge to entire region, not just one country's water. 

What is more a predicted increase in reliance on tuna for food across the Pacific and a rising local population is likely to more than outweigh any increase to local catches. 

The Chief Executive Officer for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Ulu Bismarck Crawley, said the government will be studying reports like this closely. 

"These are implications of changing climate," he told the Samoa Observer. 

"These kinds of research outlines the drawbacks and positive impacts of climate change depending on where we are." 

One local tuna fisher in Siumu said she believed there was some evidence to suggest that tuna catches would change, something she had noticed since 2014. 

“Every year there were months we expected no fish but this year and last year we got fish from the beginning of the year and we are still getting it," said Le-vetti Taula, a 33-year-old mother of two.

"They are still coming.

“Maybe it depends on the season. But right now, from June-October that’s when the tuna number increases. 

"It’s different every year. The beginning of the year, sometimes we have fish and then sometimes in the mid-year, so we don’t know what causes it.”

Mrs. Taula said the variation in their tuna catch may be because of climate change, but the Chinese long-line fishing vessels are her major concerns as she has lost most of her markets selling frozen fish at a lower cost.

“They (Chinese fishing vessels) will spoil our markets especially the hotels,” she said to the Samoa Observer. 

Mrs. Taula has been involved in commercial fishing since 2014, when she used to operate her sister’s boat, but has now run her own business for close to five months now. 

She foreshadowed a problem that may follow an increase in local fish populations: competition from overseas industry.  

“I’m worried because the Chinese [fishermen] have bigger boats right now for line fishing, and the income we used to get will decrease," she said. 

Her six workers normally catch Skipjack and Yellow fin tuna and are normally sold to the markets and hotels.

“These Chinese [fishermen] are selling the fish at a lower price especially the yellow fin and mahi, and most hotels are taking the frozen fish from the Chinese [boats]," she said. 

"And people in Samoa go for the price they don’t care if frozen or fresh.

“So no matter how we tell them this is a freshly cut fish, they still prefer frozen. But some hotels still take us like Sinalei Reef Resort and Spa.

“Sometimes they (Chinese) do help us they have fresh ones and then we go buy it. But still it’s a worry. Hopefully most hotels will not take the frozen fish.” 

Mrs. Taula said when the boys bring a lot of fish they save up their fuel and only go out twice a week.

“I don’t understand why the fish come and go. Maybe because of climate change, but for now it’s a source of income.” 

On good days, she earns more than $1,000 tala after all the expenses. 

The question of whether there will be enough fish to go around goes to the heart of Dr. Bell's research. 

"Fish is really important to food security in Samoa: as populations grow reef fish will not meet demand," he said. 

"We're expecting a gap to emerge between how much people need for nutrition and how much reefs can provide."

"The whole subtropical region including Samoa have been blessed with abundant fish. But the Pacific Islands states are wanting more tuna to be used for food security."

Pacific states are expecting to greatly increase their reliance on tuna for food, but Ulu said balancing cash and subsistence fishing is important to sustain Samoa's fisheries.   

A meeting of Health Ministers from Pacific states in Fiji this week forecast the need for a change to diet as one means of combating rising levels of diabetes in countries such as Samoa.

Meanwhile, international climate change bodies have warned that on-land farming is contributing to the unsustainable rise in carbon emissions, suggesting a change in the diet of not just the Pacific but the world may be needed.

A forecast shortfall in fish supplies and the potential effects of over exploitation of tuna have led researchers to recommend governments increase local the sustainable local supply of fish by investing in small-pond aquaculture. 

Pacific leaders have noted that initiatives to boost tuna supply are on track to deliver returns in the short-term. A Pacific Community study on the future of fisheries predicted that the “region’s tuna catch in 2024 will be worth double what it is in 2014".

But it warned the two-fold increase could well be undermined by future developments. 

“Although tuna fisheries are seen as an important opportunity for economic development, we are still in the situation of allowing two-thirds of our tuna to be harvested by foreign fishing boats; and nearly 90 per cent is taken out of the region for processing," the document said.

The rich tuna resources of the Western and Central Pacific Ocean supply 60 percent of the world’s tuna. 

The U.S. Coast Guard is in Samoa this month to jointly conduct patrols dedicated to enforcing fisheries law in Samoa's Exclusive Economic Zone. 

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