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By Simon Torok 8 August 2019 7 min read

South Tarawa Island, Kiribati. Image: Piers Dunstan / CSIRO

PACIFIC Islanders have the largest ocean territory on the planet. In fact, they have more ocean territory than they have land territory - they are ocean states. The marine environment is central to everything they do.

Mr Arona Ngari, Chair of the Pacific Meteorological Council, says the ocean is critical to the people of the Pacific. “The ocean is our livelihoods, our sustenance and our food source. We also use it for transport within our two million square kilometres of ocean. It is a resource that has been handed from our forefathers, with traditional knowledge passed on from generation to generation of how to tame the seas to get the best out of them.”

CSIRO's Dr Piers Dunstan says the relationship with the ocean and how it needs to be managed is inherent in the values held by Pacific Islanders, and says working in partnership with local communities is vital.

“Working in the Pacific makes you realise the assumptions you make as a researcher in Australia are not appropriate in the Pacific. The decision to create protected areas will affect people’s lives in such a fundamental way that it could potentially be unethical to make them if not made in consultation. In the Pacific, the reefs and everything to the edge of atolls and islands are managed under customary tenure, and people rely on these areas for food.”

It’s about how to have your ocean and use it too. “Biodiversity in the Pacific provides many of the key resources that Pacific Island nations rely on. We need a marine environment that supports people to live healthy lives, while still having a marine environment that has all the things that everyone values, wants to use, and wants to sustain ep over the longer term.”

Pacific protein

Around the world each year, marine fisheries and aquaculture produce more than 100 million tonnes of seafood. Most of this comes from wild-harvest marine fisheries, with almost a quarter coming from marine aquaculture. They are the primary source of protein for 17 per cent of the world’s population, and provide nearly a quarter of the protein consumed in low-income, food-deficit countries.

CSIRO’s Dr Karen Evans says that the amount of protein from the ocean consumed in the Pacific region is higher than in any other part of the world.

“Pacific Islanders rely on food from the ocean for protein in their day-to-day lives. Many islands, and in particular atoll islands, don’t have the land suitable for farming other sources of protein, such as beef and lamb.”

The port in South Tarawa. Image: Piers Dunstan / CSIRO

Pacific nation economies rely on the income generated by fleets fishing within their exclusive economic zones, both national and international, and associated industries such as canneries. Many Pacific countries also have a growing tourism market, including cruise ships and people flying in for ocean-related activities. Growing consideration of bio-prospecting and seabed mining may have ramifications across the region if not properly managed.

The economies and environment of the region face many challenges, including marine pollution, plastic and debris, illegal fishing, and climate change.

“In the northern Pacific, there are numerous World War II wrecks that are potentially leaking toxic materials into the ocean,” says Dr Dunstan. “In the north, near the Federated States of Micronesia and Marshall Islands, down to the Solomons and Papua New Guinea, there are up to 800 sunken wrecks that may be leaching oil and other pollutants into the environment.”

Research specific to the Pacific

Dr Dunstan says that as well as environmental pressures, the region is limited in local research capacity, technical capabilities, and data access. The Pacific has some of the lowest scientific capacity in the world in terms of the number of people trained or working in science. Australia is assisting with regional research leadership and training. “Many Pacific nations rely on near-shore marine environments for their wellbeing, so ensuring the environment can continue to support livelihoods is an important part of CSIRO’s research,” he says.

Unloading cargo from the supply ship in Nauru. Image: Piers Dunstan / CSIRO

Dr Evans agrees that CSIRO research can contribute to the monitoring and management of the region’s marine environment. “Pacific Island countries and territories look to the regional programs operating in the Pacific, such as SPREP (the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme). They look to larger neighbours such as Australia and New Zealand to help them monitor their environments, achieve management processes that are effective for their region, and help sustain their economies.”

“COSPPac (the Climate and Oceans Support Program) in the Pacific has promoted the monitoring of the oceans so as to advise us of the quality and the status of the environment now,” says Mr Ngari. “It also provides projections that can assist us to plan to manage our environment and our lives.”

He says monitoring biodiversity is part of this. “Biodiversity is important to us in the sense of sustainability and livelihoods. We need to practice protecting our biodiversity and promote this to future generations.”

Cook Islands longline vessel.

CSIRO’s work in the region includes developing indicators that individual countries and territories can use to track aspects of the environment such as biodiversity. Importantly, the environmental indicators allow for the varying technical capacity across Pacific Islands and territories. They are designed to be useful for national planning and reporting, to help with policy and decision making, and to support reporting requirements. The indicators also provide data that are relevant to the many regional agreements that countries and territories across the region report against. “CSIRO has a role to play, as does the broader community in Australia, in ensuring that our marine environment is monitored not only around our nation but also in our region, and that effective management measures are implemented,” says Dr Evans.

“Developing indicators in collaboration with researchers in the region provides Pacific countries and territories with the ability to monitor and track the state of the marine environment, and identify trends associated with their environment. Knowing the state and trend allows them to make better decisions; for example, if you have a downward trend in quality you know you need to do something about it. You can’t manage something effectively if you don’t know what state it is in.”

CSIRO researchers have examined the disturbances caused by fishing with trawl nets and longlines. “There’s been strong evidence for a long time that trawl gear can have an impact on corals,” says Dr Dunstan. “Our latest results show that these changes propagate more broadly through the ecosystem. Fishing can have massive negative impact, while in other locations there are things that offset and reduce the negatives. It changes a lot depending on the context, making impacts harder to predict, so you need to look at this holistically.”

A workshop to train staff from the Cook Island Ministry of Marine Resources.

CSIRO research is used to sustainably manage fisheries by providing important information needed for stock assessments and management processes such as species stock structure, distributions, and connectivity, explains Dr Evans. “We’re also involved in a range of projects providing biological inputs into stock assessments, such as age, growth and reproduction parameters of tuna species across the region. You need to know when they first reproduce, at what size and/or age and how often and what the age structure of the population being fished is in order to have robust, up-to-date information for stock assessments.”

She says these stock assessments then provide an estimate of how many fish there are in the ocean, to what degree they’re being fished, and what amount of fishing is sustainable in the long-term. This provides the data used by the regional fisheries management organisation (the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission) and the national fisheries agencies of Pacific Island countries and territories on which management decisions are made to ensure fisheries are sustainable.

Dr Dunstan explains that CSIRO has had significant impact by providing science-based advice. “The challenge is linking science to policy. What we’re really trying to do is work across different levels of government and community to ensure the Pacific can be sustainable. It’s easier at community level to see science picked up and people changing what they do, so there are real opportunities to change things by presenting options for communities to choose.”

Dr Evans adds that the interconnected nature of the ocean also means cooperation and partnerships are important. “The ocean is one ocean, it is connected, so what happens in one area impacts what is going on around it. We have a role to ensure that the right science, and the right advice based on the science, goes into the region so that the right decisions are made and the region is managed appropriately.”

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