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Climate Change and Over Fishing Among Key Issues for the Pacific Islands

Pollution-busting Measures Needed to Protect Coral Reefs: Coastal Fish Stocks are Already Depleted

London/Nairobi, 6 January 2005 – Global warming and the over exploitation of coastal fish stocks are among the biggest environmental threats to the health and wealth of the Pacific islands according to reports released today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Rapid population growth, running at currently over two per cent a year, has also led to fears that the number of people “has exceeded the carrying capacity of some islands”.

For example, the estimated population of Betio Islet on the Tarawa atoll, Kiribati, is estimated to be 40,000 giving it a population density rivaling Hong Kong or Singapore.

In common with many other small islands around the globe, a switch from traditional, often biodegradable products since the 1970s towards imported consumer goods is also taking its toll.

Many Pacific islands have neither the land nor infrastructure to handle rising waste mounds of paper, plastics and metals and much becomes discarded and left to rot.

Discarded rubbish not only presents an eyesore representing a risk to tourism. Decaying wastes also represent a risk to human health and wildlife including marine-living creatures such as sea birds and turtles.

Sewage discharge and agricultural run off into lagoons and coastal waters has also become a public health issue.

The pollution by these so-called nutrients can lead to an increase in algal blooms, many of which are toxic. The accumulation of these toxins in fish and shellfish through the food chain can result in ciguatera poisoning in humans.

Ciguatera poisoning is manifested by diarrhea, gastrointestinal pain and nausea in people who eat the contaminated fish.

A survey of around 500 people in New Caledonia found that a quarter had suffered some kind of food poisoning ‘indicating a significant proportion of ciguatera cases go unreported’ say the reports.

There are concerns that ‘significant increases’ in more potentially hazardous wastes will occur over the coming years in the growing economies of countries like Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Samoa unless action it taken to address the issue.

This includes a rise in electronic goods including computers and televisions and automotive wastes containing toxic chemicals such as lead and brominated fire retardants, asbestos and acids.

These are among the findings from a series of reports released today by UNEP on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) across the world.

They come in advance of next week’s International Meeting to Review the Implementation of the Programme of Action for the SIDS taking place in Mauritius, 10 to 14 January 2005.

The meeting is also known as the 10 year-review of the Barbados Programme of Action for Sustainable Development of SIDS.

The reports, an international effort involving scientists and collaborating centers across the world, cover the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean and Atlantic SIDS.

They have been produced by UNEP’s Division of Early Warning and Assessment as part of its Global Environment Outlook series and UNEP’s Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA) project based at the University of Kalmar, Sweden.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: “ Small island developing states are amongst the most environmentally and economically vulnerable nations in the world. Many are geographically remote and are dependent upon limited natural resources such as freshwater and marine resources. Many are threatened by climate change in the guise of more extreme weather events and rising sea levels.”

He said that the SIDS of the Pacific had been far from idle over the past 10 years. Through regional initiatives like the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme, many countries are attempting to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and to protect the regions unique land and marine life.

There has been a return in some places to traditional fisheries protection strategies such as closed seasons and areas known as ‘tapus’ and ‘fonos’, restrictions on fishing gear and the kinds of species being caught.

Community-based conservation projects, including marine protected areas, are emerging in countries including the Cook Islands and Fiji. A five-year regional Action Strategy for Nature Conservation is under way.

An initiative, backed by the European Union and Denmark and called the Pacific Islands Energy Policies and Strategic Action Planning, has commenced. It was a specific, so- called Type II initiative, outcome of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).

“But we need much more action if we are to guarantee in the 21st century the environmental health of these islands and their rich and proud cultures. To make sound decisions, you need sound science. I sincerely hope that these new assessments of SIDS will help guide us all towards a more vigorous and focused effort to help these small nations and their peoples’ achieve a more sustainable future,” said Mr. Toepfer.

Climate Change

“Pacific SIDS are extremely vulnerable to climate change and variability and sea-level rise because of their low elevation and population and infrastructure concentration in the coastal zone,” say the researchers.

Some islands, which are barely one metre above sea level, such as Kiribati, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, have already lost islets to sea level rise.

Salt water intrusion, coastal erosion, storms, droughts, bleaching of corals and damage to forests are among other threats posed by accelerating global warming.

Changes are already happening. Data collected by the New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research since the 1970s show that New Caledonia, Fiji and Tonga have become drier.

Experts predict that the islands of Wallis and Futuna, Samoa, Tokelau, Niue and the Cook Islands, are now all at increased risk during the November to January cyclone season. In 2004, the island of Niue was devastated by cyclone Heta, which caused over USD 40 million in damages.

Over Fishing

“Unsustainable exploitation of fish is universal throughout the region and more serious close to urban areas,” say the researchers who cite various factors including lack of regulation of subsistence fishing and western-style fisheries management for some of the harm.

Fish is a critical part of the diet of many Pacific islanders with consumption on Kiribati as high as 200 kg per person annually. The contribution of fisheries to the local economy can be high.

The Asian Development Bank now estimates that fisheries contribute, on average, 7 per cent to Pacific islands’ gross domestic product. In Kiribati it could be as high as 24 per cent.

Other studies highlight the importance to local people. One hundred per cent of the fishing in Tokelau is subsistence rather than commercial.

A similar picture emerges across the region with subsistence fishing accounting for 95 per cent of the catch in the Northern Marianas, 94 per cent in Samoa, 90 per cent in the Federated States of Micronesia and in the Solomon Islands and also 90 per cent in Niue.

The lowest levels of subsistence versus commercial fishing are in Nauru, 26 per cent and Tonga, 30 per cent.

Vanuatu is a case study of where over fishing has resulted in a sharp decline in catches. Here the catch has declined from 90,000 tonnes in 1999 to less than 30,000 in 2001.

In some islands the decline in coastal and reef-living stocks has forced many islanders to switch to often imported, less nutritious foods such as mutton flaps, turkey tails, tinned fish and corned beef resulting in a “deterioration of health and increases in non-communicable diseases”.

The demand for fish products, including sea cucumbers, shrimp, oysters and seaweeds in Southeast and East Asia, is likely to intensify the pressure on Pacific island marine resources unless action is taken to make fishing more sustainable.

Smoking of sea cumbers, also known as bêche-de-mer, can be particularly damaging to local forests with 10 tonnes of wood needed to smoke one tonne of catch.

The damage from over fishing is being aggravated in some areas by land-based pollution and pollution from ships. Sewerage discharges are increasing sediment and nutrient levels in coastal waters damaging coral reefs and triggering the collapse of some reef fisheries.

Fisheries beyond the coastal waters, for species such as skipjack tuna, are considered to hold significant potential for future long-term economic development.

It is calculated that one third of all landed tuna, up to 60 per cent of which goes to the canning industry and 30 per cent of which goes to the high value Japanese sashimi market, comes from the Pacific.

Currently, the economic returns to Pacific small islands is low when set against the value of catch which is currently taken by overseas fleets paying relatively low access or license fees.

Experts calculate that the Pacific islands are being paid less than 10 per cent of the around USD 2 billion revenues generated.

Managed sustainably “the oceanic fisheries resource...has the capacity to finance consolidated revenue with follow on benefits for environmental areas not currently receiving attention,” say the researchers.

Action Needed

SIDS across the world are facing uncertain economic and environmental times as a result of shifts in demands for commodity crops such as sugar and bananas, sometimes rising populations with a thirst for modern, consumer living, and emerging, cross-cutting threats, such as climate change.

Many islands are rising to the challenges acting within regional groupings to try and find ways to overcome their difficulties and joining in the myriad of multilateral agreements covering everything from hazardous wastes and global warming to shipping, fishing and biodiversity.

A considerable number have shown remarkable success in striving toward the UN Millennium Development Goals in areas such as education, the provision of drinking water and health.

However, many of these achievements may be overwhelmed by continuing environmental decline. Most islands remain hampered by their remoteness, small GNP’s with little chance of economies of scale for tackling issues such as domestic and industrial wastes and by the difficulties of accessing the technologies they need.

The global community must use the Mauritius Meeting to renew its commitment to these unique cultures and societies by increasing the resources available, by transferring appropriate technologies and building the capacities of governments, industries and civil society to overcome the shortfalls.

Climate change remains a key issue for many SIDS. Increased investment in vulnerability, early warning and adaptation schemes are urgently needed.

However, the best hope will be for the global community to make big reductions in greenhouse gases of 60 per cent or more. Many islands can only reduce vulnerability and adapt to rising sea levels for so long before they are partly or wholly submerged.

Note to Editors

Pacific Environment Outlook is available at www.unep.org.

Pacific Islands: GIWA Regional Assessment 62 is available at www.unep.org.

Details on the International Meeting to Review the Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) taking place in Mauritius 10 to 14 January 2005 are at http://www.un.org/smallislands2005/ and http://www.sidsmauritius2005.mu/.

For More Information Please Contact: Eric Falt, Spokesman/Director UNEP Division of Communications and Public Information on Tel: 254 20 623292, e-mail: eric.falt@unep.org or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, on Tel: 254 20 623084, Mobile: 254 (0) 733 632755, E-mail: nick.nuttall@unep.org

UNEP News Release 2005/03