Fishing in the Blue Pacific

Photos: Francisco Blaha

Photos: Francisco Blaha

In the Pacific, ocean fisheries are essential to economies, cultures and communities. But because of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, these resources are under threat.

New Zealand is working with the region to create a sustainable future for fisheries in the Pacific, and to ensure countries in the region have control over their valuable resources.

  • The value of tuna fishery catch in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean is estimated at US$5.3 billion. For some countries this is their only commercial resource.
  • The fishing industry provided 23,000 jobs for Pacific Islanders in 2018. This includes fishing, processing, training, and officials and observers who monitor the sustainability of the fish stocks.
  • The Pacific region has significant marine biodiversity, with many species found only in the region, and a large number of migratory species.
  • Fish make up around 70 percent of the protein in Pacific Island diets. People in the Pacific eat around four times as much fish per capita as the global average.

Whose fish in whose waters?

To understand what fisheries mean economically for Pacific Island countries, you need to understand their exclusive economic zones (EEZ).

The EEZ is not set according to a country’s population or land area. The boundary of a country’s EEZ is usually 200 nautical miles from its coastline. If a country is made up of islands spread over vast distances, like many Pacific Island countries, this can result in a vast EEZ.

An EEZ is an ocean zone where a country has resources rights. A country’s EEZ is considered international waters, but the country has the rights over the resources in those waters. In practical terms, this means an international vessel can freely pass through a country’s EEZ, but it cannot legally fish, produce energy, or prospect for resources in those waters without the country’s permission.


With expanses of ocean overseen by very small countries, international vessels fishing without rights or permits, or misreporting what they are catching, is a huge challenge. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing threatens the sustainability of the fishing stocks. It also deprives Pacific Island countries of the economic returns that are their right.

A study in 2016 pulled together a ‘best estimate’ for illegal, unreported and unregulated activity in Pacific tuna fisheries of 306,440 tonnes per year. The estimated value of that tuna when it left the vessels was US$616.11 million by 2016 prices. The single biggest activity within this was under-reporting the quantity of fish caught.

What New Zealand has to offer

New Zealand has valuable experience to help Pacific island countries’ efforts to monitor the fishing activities in their waters. Having clear policies, effective processes for operations like port inspections, and the people trained to conduct them, is needed for countries to be able to monitor and control their fisheries. Fisheries experts from Ministry for Primary Industries run workshops and work alongside Pacific officials to improve their operations.

Investing in science and technology is also part of New Zealand’s support. The Pacific Community (SPC) are experts in fisheries management science, using the catch reported from vessels to estimate the size of tuna stocks and make sure that fish are being caught at sustainable levels. New Zealand works with the Pacific to evolve methods to collect and share data and tools for surveillance.

New Zealand works with the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), (which is made up of Pacific Island countries), along with Australia, the US, and France to identify at-risk times when a boost in surveillance is needed. Royal New Zealand Navy vessels undertake surveillance operations in Pacific waters with these partners – creating a significant deterrent to IUU related vessels.


Wherever you stand in Tuvalu, you are never out of sight of the sea. The ocean provides both their primary food source, with Tuvaluans eating as much as 80 kilograms of fish per capita a year, and their primary economic resource.

For years, the challenge has been how to stamp out IUU fishing, maintain fisheries stocks at sustainable levels, and generate greater economic returns. Fish processing (like canneries), are an option for some countries to increase local employment and returns from fisheries. But they require facilities and energy and transport infrastructure on a scale that Tuvalu doesn’t have.

Tuvalu is a party to the Nauru Agreement, formed in 1982, along with Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands. Together these countries have rights over the biggest tuna fisheries in the world. The Nauru Agreement was established to sustainably manage the tuna fisheries, and protect other marine life.

Vessel Days - managing rights sustainably

One of the main features of the agreement is the Vessel Days Scheme, which has been operating since 2010. Based on the sustainability of stocks, an annual overall limit is set for the number of days that fishing vessels can be licensed to fish in the combined zones of the countries that are part of the agreement. In 2018, this limit was around 45,000 days. Each country is allocated a share of the days, and they then sell the day licences in their zone to international fishing vessels.

The Vessel Days Scheme gives even small Pacific Island countries that don’t have commercial vessels a source of income from their resource.

The catches of the international vessels that purchase licences are monitored, meaning there is greater information about the fisheries stocks overall.

For Tuvalu, the Vessel Days Scheme has been a huge economic lift for the country. Along with the incomes from selling the licences, it has opened up professional opportunities. The Ministry of Fisheries has expanded, with Tuvaluans employed as observers to monitor fishing practices and verify catches on foreign fishing vessels.

New Zealand has funded new facilities in Tuvalu, and New Zealand experts have also been based in Tuvalu to support their efforts.


New Zealand brings a Pacific perspective to its global advocacy, supporting countries to assert their rights over the Blue Pacific.

The sustainability and viability of fisheries resources is directly affected by factors that are in the global spotlight. This includes climate change. Just as a small change in temperature can affect ecosystems on land, changes in water temperature affect ocean eco-systems. As water temperatures rise and ocean waters become more acidic, there is the potential that the fish that currently sustain the people and the economies of the Pacific will no longer swim in their waters.

As well as engaging in global climate change advocacy, New Zealand supports a Pacific voice on global oceans and fisheries issues. We engage with other members of the Forum Fisheries Agency to present a strong Pacific voice on fisheries issues in multilateral forums. We provide funding to the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner to help ensure that Pacific Island countries’ interests are represented on the world stage.