The Heritage of Our Children

The Pacific Ocean occupies a very large portion of the Earth’s surface and is host to many of the smallest island states. Most of these micro states have a history of colonization by the metropolitan powers. Some remain territories of these colonizing powers to today. In terms of population and land mass these countries have been categorized within the UN definition as and have perceived themselves as small developing island states. Many share a history of extreme exploitation by their former colonial masters and some continue to suffer the after effects of that experience with their prospects for economic development considered bleak.

However following the advent and the coming into force of the UNCLOS in 1982 the role of these small island states began to take on a new dimension and level of significance. Countries which previously had a combined land mass of a mere 800 square kilometers have overnight become huge ocean states of 3.5 million sq. km of ocean. This development did not only change the physical dimensions of these countries but it also brought with it new prospects. What were previously insignificant islands countries deserted by their former colonial masters having served their utility have suddenly taken a new level of significance and relevance. The custody of the oceans with its resources and the skies above the EEZs of these countries are no longer part of the commons and no longer freely accessible to all countries. At the initial stages this new regime caused a great of tension as both, the coastal states and those countries vying for access to what has now become controlled EEZs, had to come to terms with the full implications of the new arrangement.

For these large ocean states UNCLOS brought new opportunities initially from the revenues derived from license fees paid by distant water fishing nations for access to their rich fishing grounds. For most of these countries access fees constitutes the only return they have been able to derive from their fisheries within their newly extended EEZs. The fees represents around 10% or less of the landed value of the fish on the side of the wharf and not the final retail value. And for the last forty years this has been the average rate of return for these countries from one of the largest and relatively healthy tuna fishery in the world. The Pacific Tuna Fishery hosts around 60% of the remaining tuna fish stocks in the world and has been and continues to be exploited by all major fishing nations including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the USA and the EU. With the exception of just a few, most of these pacific Island countries do not engage in the processing or harvesting of this huge resource within their EEZs.

The management of the vast ocean areas under their control poses a major challenge for these small island states who do not always have the capacity to provide adequate surveillance coverage and monitoring of the activities within their EEZs. Therefore one of the major challenges within this fishery has and continues to be IUU activities. Therefore in order to enhance the effectiveness of their enforcement measures several regional collaborative arrangements including agreements with partners beyond the region have been put in place. These include arrangements on surveillance, data collection and evaluation as well as in collective bargaining arrangements with distant water fishing partners.

In recent years there have expressions of concern over the state of the stocks of two of the more targeted species, big-eye and yellow fin tuna which have shown signs of reaching dangerously low levels. At present the management system used in the allocation of licenses to fishing interests is an effort based Vessel Day Scheme where fishing vessels buy fishing days to fish within the EEZs for an agreed amount. There is at present no limit set on the volume of fish taken at any one of these fishing days. With the extensive use of fish aggregating devices (FADs) and the ever improving efficiency of the technology available to the fishing industry catch rates have been rising all the time. In response to scientific reports on the state of the stocks, this issue had been discussed and agreed at the highest political level by the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders that a transition to a quota based management system should be explored as a matter of urgency.

As already indicated many of the smaller Pacific island countries are highly dependent on revenues derived from their fishery resources and this may to some extent explain their continued reliance on the effort based VDS which ostensibly offers ready high revenue returns without any investment commitments. And precisely because of their heavy reliance on revenue from their fishery, the rapid decline of the fish stocks calls for an urgent evaluation of the implications of the current arrangements on the sustainability of the fishery stocks and an assessment of the options available. Without exception all of these countries aspire to derive higher rates of returns from their fishery through enhanced participation in the processing, harvesting and eventually in the marketing of fish products. However the ability of especially the smaller island countries to engage in processing (the more labor intensive component of the industry) is constrained by the lack of fresh water and high energy costs.

There is therefore an urgent need to address these obstacles through more innovative solutions including the use of alternative renewable energy sources and investing in the development of new fish processing technology which minimizes reliance on the use of fresh water. Enhancing the participation of coastal states in the industry will not only result in higher rates of return from their fishery but it will also reduce the pressure to maximize revenue returns from the sale of vessel days thereby reducing pressure on the fish stocks. Climate Change and sea level rise also pose a very clear and unequivocal threat to the future survival of the most vulnerable of the smaller Pacific Island States. In order for these countries to have any chance of survival in the future, very substantial adaptation measures need to be undertaken to build any degree of climate resilience, which would need the scale of resources not yet made available from any funding source. Yet the potential to source such funding from higher returns from their fisheries could not only offer opportunities for building resilience against the impacts of climate change but also for building a sustainable, even a relatively affluent future.

Another initiative for which the Pacific Region can claim leadership in ocean management and conservation has been in the declaration of Marine Protected Areas under the various national, sub-regional and regional wide initiatives such as the Pacific Oceanscape, the Micronesian Challenge and the Coral Triangle to cite a few. Under these various arrangements a significant portion of the 40 million sq. km of the Pacific Ocean under the custody of Pacific Island states has now come under protection, indicating a strong commitment by these ocean states to their responsibility as custodians of the largest body of ocean on the planet.

However in spite of these achievements there are potential challenges ahead, with the onset of deep seabed mining and mounting pressure from corporate interests to undertake exploration and eventually mining of the deep seabed. Some countries have already issued exploration licenses to foreign companies and whilst there have been some initial problems encountered these may have since been resolved. However the challenge will be the potential for conflicts in the pressing need for revenue by island countries, the interaction between the fishery and conservation objectives against the possible negative impacts of mining operations of the seabed. It is also the case that for some of these countries the relevant legislative instruments and best practice procedures for mining, if it ever comes to that, have not been adequately addressed if at all.

Another question which has been the subject of debate within the academia and the international legal fratenty is; what is to become of the vast EEZs of these states when their islands become submerged due to climate change and sea level rise? Undoubtedly this will be an issue which could provoke some discussion at the upcoming UN Oceans Conference but one on which the island countries are united in declaring that their maritime boundaries which has been declared in accordance with international law remains.

Let us all think about the future of those issues because what we are really discussing here is the heritage of the children and grandchildren of the small Pacific Islands.