The Importance of Coastal Fisheries in the Pacific Islands / by Francisco Blaha

Most of my work deals with oceanic/commercial fisheries; nevertheless I have a keen interest in the coastal fisheries in the region, as it is uniquely worldwide. In no other place i ever worked, fisheries plays such a key role in everyday life.

Much of the region’s nutrition, welfare, culture, employment, and recreation are based on the living resources in the zone between the shoreline and the outer reefs of the region. The continuation of current lifestyles, opportunities for future development, and food security are all highly dependent on coastal fisheries resources. 

In this post I quote the work of my friend and colleague Bob Gillett on a report (Pacific Island Fisheries: Issues and Challenges) he prepared for the UN ESCAP Pacific Office in 2014. Bob knows the Pacific as no one else, and he is  my references in regards how profession/work, ocean sports and life can (should?) be complementary.

While Coastal fisheries are dwarfed in both volume (approx. 12% vs 88%) and value by the offshore tuna fisheries, the region’s fisheries based on coastal resources provide most of the non-imported fish supplies to the region and hence have a crucial role in food security. 

Coastal fishery resources include a wide range of finfish and invertebrates. They are characterised by their shallow water habitats or demersal life-styles, restriction of individual movements to coastal areas, and, in most cases restricted larval dispersal. Because of their relative accessibility, these resources form the basis of most of the region’s small-scale fisheries.

An important characteristic of the coastal fisheries of the region is the diversity of the catch. The coastal fisheries of the region take a very large number of species. For example, it has been stated that subsistence fishing in Samoa makes use of 500 species. The term “tropical multi-species fisheries” is often used to describe the situation – as well as to allude to the difficulty of managing such a heterogeneous array of species. The coastal catch can be divided into finfish, invertebrates, and others:

  • A 2002 study of coastal fisheries in the region showed that a typical small-scale commercial reef fishery in the region may harvest between 200 and300 finfish species, although it is likely that only a few species will dominate landings. Approximately one-third of the coastal catch total is comprised of emperors (Lethrinidae), surgeonfish (Acanthuridae) and snappers (Lutjanidae).
  • The most-landed invertebrate food species groups in the region are: giant clams, and beche de mer, followed by much smaller amounts of crabs, lobsters, strombus, turbo, arc shell, other bivalves/gastropods, trochus, urchin, octopus, shoreline gastropods, beach bivalves, and land crabs (SPC 2008). Beche de mer, trochus and pearl oysters are important invertebrate export 
  • Seaweeds are considered a “fishery” resource in most Pacific Island countries. They are mainly used for local food, but exported from a few countries (e.g. Tonga). “Live rock” which is portions of reef rock covered with attached organisms, particularly coralline algae, is thought to be a fishery resource in several countries. 

Coastal fishing methods reflect the diversity of the target species, and include activities while walking, wading, swimming, and fishing from non-motorised and motorized vessels. Popular techniques include gleaning, spearfishing, trapping, gillnetting, hook/line dropline fishing, and trolling.

In general, the coastal fishery resources are heavily fished and often show signs of overexploitation, especially in areas close to population centres and for fishery products in demand by the rapidly-growing Asian economies. The coastal fisheries are also negatively affected by habitat degradation, which occurs from destructive fishing practices, urbanisation, siltation from mining/logging, and competing uses of the coastal zone.

Coastal fisheries statistics are not very good in most countries of the region. Typically, government fisheries agencies give low priority to estimating the total amount of domestic catches. In general, the smaller the scale of the fishing, the less is known about the production levels, with quantitative information being especially scarce for the subsistence fisheries in most countries. Samoa, where a survey of village fisheries was completed a few years ago, is a notable exception. 

Short-term support to enhance fisheries statistical systems has been provided by FAO, SPC, NMFS, JICA and other agencies. A major lesson from almost 30 years of such support to establishing and enhancing national fisheries statistical systems is that, once external support is withdrawn, the systems usually degenerate and eventually become dysfunctional. Despite the importance of such data, the reality is that (a) in the prioritization of scarce government funding, the on-going routine collection of fisheries data has not received much priority, and (b) it is quite unlikely that any of the donors active in the fisheries sector in the region would be willing to fund such systems over the long-term.

Another issue is that most of the countries in the region attach great importance to their subsistence and small-scale commercial fisheries. However, it is these fisheries that present the greatest difficulties for the collection of production information. Also to be considered is that many fisheries specialists have questioned the cost-effectiveness and practicalities of regular and extensive detailed data collection from small-scale fisheries in the Pacific Islands.

The management of coastal fishery resources in many Pacific Island countries is a mixture of several systems:

  • Traditional management. This is most prevalent in rural areas and characteristically involves village leaders restricting the fishing by those outside the community and by various controls on fishing by community members.
  • Central government management. All Pacific Island countries have a fisheries law giving wide powers to the government fisheries agency in controlling fishing activity. For various reasons, the system is often ineffective. There is some degree of success, for example, in central governments applying point of export restrictions on those products which are exported.
  • In recent years non-government organisations have taken the lead in creating an awareness in villages of the need for, and benefits of, community-based management of fishery resources – using primarily marine protected areas (MPAs) as the main management tool.

Current coastal fishery management measures (both centrally-administered and community driven) tend to be non-quantitative and are intended to protect stocks in a generalised way. These include MPAs, size limits (both minimum and maximum), gear restrictions (minimum mesh sizes for nets, bans on torch fishing at night), prohibitions on the use of destructive fishing methods (blast fishing, poisons), prohibitions on the taking of berried females, and seasonal or area closures.