As Pacific Islanders struggle to survive in the face of climate change, they will need to adapt their traditional ways of fishing to the new reality.
For Micronesian people, seafarers down the ages, the Pacific Ocean is their playground, their livelihood and their source of sustenance. They contributed almost nothing to the climate crisis, but their island way of life means they have been among the first to suffer its devastating effects. At the Pacific Islands Forum, beginning July 12, Micronesian governments will be looking to climate solutions to support their communities.
The sea provides up to 90 percent of Micronesians’ dietary protein and represents a crucial source of essential micronutrients, so a conversation about sustainable climate adaptations for fishing will be vitally important.
The sea’s bounty is deteriorating at an unprecedented rate. Some 70 percent of reef fish species are expected to be locally extinct by the end of the century. The average size of fish is also projected to decrease by 20 percent by 2050, and many fishers are already beginning to notice changes.
Researchers quoted one fisher from Poland village, Kiribati as saying, “In the past, we catch Koinawa [surgeonfish] that were larger, now they are much smaller. In the past, we could only cook two fish in the frying pan. Now we can fit almost six in the pan”.
The shrinking size of fish is widening the gap between the amount of fish required for good nutrition (35 kilograms per person per year) and what fishing expeditions are likely to bring back, with health implications such as undernutrition and impaired growth for households who rely on reef fish for food.
“We depend heavily on fish, so really not sure what we would do if fish resources declined. The supply from the store is so expensive,” said a fisher from London village, Kiribati.
Fishers may need to switch from reef fish to ocean species such as tuna. Tuna numbers are projected to increase around several of the Micronesian islands. Diversifying fish catch may also help preserve traditional fishing practices and enable subsistence fishing communities to maintain their healthy high levels of fish consumption. Tuna contains high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and promote brain health. Tuna also contains high amounts of micronutrients, which are particularly important for expectant mothers for foetal and child development.
Governments may assist in the switch to more ocean-going fish by increasing the number of fish-aggregating devices – large buoys anchored roughly 1 kilometre from shore that attract fish. Because the buoys are moored close to shore, subsistence fishers may be able to reach tuna using traditional paddling canoes, and not motorised boats. But the buoys’ allure to fish can be very powerful; they will require careful implementation to prevent overfishing of juvenile fish and causing harm to sensitive marine habitats.
At the community level, revival of traditional preservation methods, such as salting, drying, and smoking, can extend the shelf life of marine resources. Community-led initiatives are particularly important given that traditional fishing often follows a gender divide, with men fishing and canoeing, and women preserving and gathering from rock pools during low tide.
Programmes targeted at women could encourage stockpiling for when the weather is unsuitable for fishing. For example, octopus harvested at low tide may be dried and stored for several months. As catch surpluses tend to be shared among the community, this strategy may also support vulnerable community members who do not engage in subsistence fishing or are unable to stockpile food. Micronesian fishing communities have used preservation methods for thousands of years, so it is important that traditional practices are revived and encouraged through a community-led approach.
As climate change bites, the frequency and intensity of extreme weather is likely to restrict the number of fishing days. The Cash+ programme from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization provides no-strings cash injections at a household level. It can provide fishers with financial relief to purchase essential food items until they can get back to sea or funds for boats for when they can. It is important to provide nutritional education at the same time, given an unhealthy shift in Micronesian diets in recent years to spam, mutton flaps, turkey tails and other processed foods.
These strategies – at the government, community and household level – may help fishing communities adapt to the negative effects of climate change. The climate crisis is happening now and it will extend into the foreseeable future.
But strategies that limit global emissions to 1.5°C remain the priority. Preventing the climate from changing extends benefits beyond Micronesia to other regions vulnerable to climate variability. For example, the residents of low-income countries and island states on the eastern side of Africa, such as Comoros and Madagascar, are also suffering deteriorating health in response to climate change and degrading oceans. Some 30 to 60 million people in these countries rely on fishing for their food. Adaptation strategies in the Pacific might benefit low-income coastal communities worldwide.
Lauren Hodgson is a Master of Public Health student at the University of Queensland. She has a particular interest in the relationship between ocean conservation and human health.
Gabriela Fernando is an academic at the University of Queensland’s School of Public Health.
Nina Lansbury is a senior Lecturer in Planetary Health at the University of Queensland’s School of Public Health.
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
This article has been republished for World Fisheries Day. It was first published on July 8, 2022.