Overfishing of the Pacific: How Long Until the Fish – and Everything Else – is Gone?

Overfishing of the Pacific: How Long Until the Fish – and Everything Else – is Gone?

Napoleon Wrasse (Chelinus Undulatus) in Koror, Palau

After a decade of vegetarianism, moving to Pohnpei (in the Federated States of Micronesia) has transformed my diet. Although I shunned animal flesh of any kind for years and attempted stints of veganism, I’m now eating fish and other seafood on a regular basis. I’m not exactly happy about being a pescetarian (I’ve always taken the “all or nothing” approach), but my new dietary practices are almost a necessity. This change stems from health reasons, rather than personal preference. As a vegetarian, my restaurant options (at the dozen or so restaurants on island) were a cheese quesadilla, french fries, or–in some eating spots–nothing at all. Oh, and white rice, of course.

In the grocery store, my options were similarly dismal. On a good day, there is a limited selection of wilted produce that has spent too much time in a shipping container. On a bad day, there are a couple of potatoes to choose from and perhaps a selection of local vegetables, most of which are very starchy (taro, yams, breadfruit, etc.). There’s no yogurt, cottage cheese, hummus, or avocado on the island.

Now that I’m eating fish, my options are much better and I feel that my diet is more balanced. I’ve tried to logically analyze the ecological impacts of my Micronesian diet–which is worse, eating a cheese-filled quesadilla (all ingredients have been shipped at least 5,000 miles from the US) or a fresh, locally caught tuna? I wish the answer were simpler.

Overfishing is a growing problem in Pohnpei, both in the reef ecosystems bordering the island’s lagoon and further offshore, in the Pacific Ocean. Pohnpei’s colorful reefs are full of dozens of species of fish, as are Pohnpei’s fish markets. In my walks around town, I see tables covered with fish, waiting to be sold; what I’ve noticed is how small the fish are. And how cheap–around $2 per pound. There are no laws restricting the size of fish that can be sold in the markets and few regulations protecting fish during their spawning seasons. Research shows that about 1.6 million pounds of fish are removed from Pohnpei’s reefs each year, but the reefs produce only 1.1 million pounds of fish annually . Fish are being harvested at unsustainable rates, which raises the question: How much longer will Pohnpei’s reefs be full of fish?

Today, about 10% of Pohnpei’s reef fish are shipped to Hawaii and Guam; although these islands once had plentiful fish populations of their own, their stocks are now depleted. Unless Pohnpeians want to see their own fish supplies disappear, as they have from many other Pacific islands, more conservation regulations must be imposed–and enforced. In 1999, Pohnpei’s legislature passed a law providing for the establishment of marine protected areas. However, enforcement is a major problem and poaching in marine protected areas is common. This illegal fishing often occurs at after dark; nighttime spear-fishing, when sleeping fish are vulnerable, is a frequent activity. In addition to bolstering enforcement, the public needs to be made more aware of the existence (and location) of marine protected areas and the importance of leaving juvenile and spawning fish in the sea.

Outside the reef, fishing of another sort continues. Large-scale, commercial fishing is the primary industry of Pohnpei. The annual value of tuna harvested from the waters surrounding the Federated States of Micronesia is $200 million. However, the FSM has licensed the rights to those waters to foreign ships; the FSM thus receives only $20 million from the tuna harvest each year, primarily from license sales. This October, at a meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), representatives from the Cook Islands announced their proposal to place a fishing ban on a large area of international waters in the South Pacific, to “restore Pacific tuna fishers, protect biodiversity, and eliminate pirate fishing”. This plan, if approved, will potentially improve the conservation impacts of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, a group of eight Pacific countries (including the FSM) that own about 25% of the planet’s tuna stocks. If unregulated fishing of the Pacific continues, it’s not only the tuna fish that will be threatened; the bycatch of the massive fishing vessels cruising this region includes endangered shark species, sea turtles, and juvenile tuna.

This horrible waste of marine life is, to me, indicative of the huge changes that need to be made in the fishing industry, if we hope to have any fish in the sea 50 years from now. However, many commercial fishermen view bycatch as inevitable, since it is so difficult to avoid with modern mass-harvesting methods. Every time I eat fish, this is on my conscience–how many species were caught in the net that brought my sashimi to the surface?

Photo courtesy Klaus Stiefel/Flikr