Dispatches from Micronesia: Pohnpei, A Small Island Where Big Decisions Will Be Made

  • October 17, 2012

Dispatches from Micronesia

By Adam Baske

After 10 hours of flying over the vast Pacific, I see a tropical paradise emerging from the ocean. Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia, is an island where lush jungle-covered mountains spill into a lagoon surrounded by miles of coral reefs.

Sokeh's Rock

The only thing that suggests any connection to the industrialized world is the presence of 10 huge ships anchored in the lagoon. The vessels are about 300 feet long and have several cranes on their decks. 

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Tuna matters

I was in Pohnpei for a meeting of the Technical and Compliance Committee for the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), a collection of more than 25 governments that manage the world's largest tuna fishery. About 200 representatives from countries and nongovernmental organizations traveled to this remote island to discuss solutions for illegal fishing and options to improve management of tuna.

WCPFC Meeting

The Western and Central Pacific tuna fishery has a current value of more than $5 billion, making tuna one of the only natural resources with the potential to provide a sustainable stream of income for many of the Small Island States in the region. Unfortunately, some of the tuna species are threatened by overfishing. It troubled me to learn that local fishermen are having a hard time catching even one yellowfin tuna.

Yellowfin tuna

It wasn't always this way

The Village, a hotel that has been operating in Pohnpei for more than 40 years, is still run by the original owners. They take pride in their property as being one of the first eco-resorts in the Pacific, using local materials to build guest houses and serving locally grown food in their restaurant. The owner's son Jaime has spent most of his life in Micronesia. He laments that fishermen who supply the hotel with yellowfin tuna are having difficulty catching them. The restaurant can serve its signature dish, yellowfin sashimi, only about half the time. It was the same story at the Joy Hotel when I ordered the daily special, the Joy Lunch.

The reply: “Sorry, no tuna today.”

The irony wasn't lost on me.

According to local testimony, this trend started some 10 years ago, about the time that industrial purse seine fishing in the region took off.

The Village

Meanwhile, down in the lagoon, purse seine vessels that have been operating up to a hundreds of miles offshore unload their catch of hundreds to thousands of tonnes of tuna. The dichotomy is striking: Thousands of tonnes of tuna from Micronesian waters will go directly to processing plants in Southeast Asia for canning. Those cans will then be shipped to supermarkets around the world. At the same time, coastal tuna fishermen in Micronesia have difficulty catching even a single yellowfin tuna for local restaurants. The tuna are obviously out there, but populations are insufficient for the fishermen to catch them consistently.

Unloading tuna

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The scale of industrial fishing and dwindling tuna populations

The purse seine vessels are targeting skipjack tuna—a smaller and faster-growing relative of bigeye and yellowfin—but the way they catch them puts the larger species at risk of overfishing.

At the WCPFC meeting, I heard a lot about Fish Aggregating Devices, or FADs. The purse seine vessels use these floating fish-attracting devices to more easily catch skipjack tuna. However, other fish also are attracted, so when a vessel surrounds a FAD with its net, it catches and kills a variety of other marine life, including sharks, billfish, and juvenile yellowfin and bigeye tuna. Although skipjack populations are still relatively healthy, less-prolific species such as sharks and bigeye tuna, are declining due to bycatch.

FADs in Pohnpei

What's to be done?

Throughout the week, the WCPFC meeting participants debated about what to do about FADs, because so many juvenile yellowfin and bigeye are caught around them. Scientists recommend limiting FAD use to 2010 levels, but the fisheries managers in the room did not all seem comfortable with that advice. Some governments pushed to shut down the fishery for several months, and some wanted to implement a system that will limit the number of FADs that a fleet can set. Others pushed to ban the use of FADs for up to six months. In the end, a consensus on a way forward was not reached.

Countries will meet again in December to decide what to do about this important fishery. Then, it is hoped, they will show up willing to make some tough decisions and actually manage the fishery. Nobody is saying that management is easy: It means limiting catches or FADs now for the long-term good of the ecosystem and the fishermen who depend on it. I hope that the representatives at the meeting can get it right and that the next time I go to the Village, the signature dish will once again be on the menu.