The Kiribati government is planning to open up the Phoenix Island Protection area (PIPA) to commercial fishing to boost revenue.
The region, almost the size of California, is a UNESCO World Heritage marine park and one of the largest in the world.
A no-take zone was declared in 2015 to protect the area but now, that decision is being reversed.
Fishing is the island’s major source of wealth but there are also concerns about achieving climate change goals.
Hawaii’s Kewalo Marine Laboratory scientist Robert Richmond spoke to Worldwatch’s Perlina Lau about PIPA and this decision to open the region.
“The trajectories of fisheries have been going down. With climate change, there’s been a lot of movement of fish and alarming trends. What really matters is what we call the BFFs – big fat females.”
When you double the size of a tuna, you can increase a female’s fecundity by 100 times; so big fish matter.
Dr Richmond said the combination of overfishing, climate change, and the expansion of the western pacific warming pool had taken a toll on the fisheries and distribution of fish.
The elevating temperatures of the ocean lead to a drop in PH levels; less plankton to feed the fish resulting in a decline of productivity.
The overall reduction in the size of tuna is driving things in the wrong direction.
With the expansion of the warming pool, fish are also being pushed to the north, south and over to the east. It puts Kiribati in a very strategic position.
“I fully respect the people of Kiribati and the leadership there and nobody, including myself, has the right to tell them what to do,” Dr Richmond said.
“However, as a scientist, I work very much with data and there are options, other than opening it up to foreign fishing licenses, to which I believe they could not only make more money, but it would be more sustainable for them and the world.”
Kiribati’s government said it had lost around $205 million since 2015 and the compensation never eventuated.
When the marine sanctuary was first proposed, the losses of revenue were supposed to be offset by a conservation contract.
But the government said the PIPA endowment fund had only raised about $10m.
“The islands have been tied up in the concept of selling their fishing rights and letting the other fishing nations, get their fish, do the value added, processing, distribution and marketing and that’s where the money is.”
Dr Richmond suggested Kiribati and other Pacific Island nations could pull together, effectively forming a bloc and take ownership.
“As a group they could do far better by controlling their own fisheries, having limited entry, control which areas are open or closed and have added value themselves.”
He said the way fisheries were currently established meant there was minimal return for the host nations and it would lead to the collapse of some nations, if it had not already.
Being an low-lying nation, global warming is an existential threat to island countries like Kiribati.
Dr Richmond said financial interests and protecting the environment did not have to be mutually exclusive.
Following COP26, leaders have pledged a “’30 x 30” goal – protect 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030.
“Kiribati is a wonderful target; it’s very well located for climate change impact and a bold move forward to move the world towards this goal.”
He said you could not expect host nations and indigenous people to give up their lives and livelihoods for the world.
Kiribati is one of the most threatened in the nations in the world because it has no higher ground.
“When they need to be a community in exile, and that’s a horrible thing to say, but the reality is there are people who are going to have to move and they’re going to need to live off the only funds of the asset they have – fisheries.
“Maybe this is the time to sit down and have this conversation about how equitability can be achieved to include the people of Kiribati.
“They have a lot to offer but they need something in return.”