We often come face-to-face with older generations regaling us with stories of how much the world has changed. Technology, food, communication, the way we live and work: few things are the same now as they were 60, 40 or even 10 years ago.

Dr Josie Tamate regularly hears about the transformations that have taken place on the tiny island of Niue in the South Pacific. But it is when the reminiscing changes to the state of the region’s fisheries and environment that it takes a poignant turn.

“I spend a lot of time talking to older folk in the communities in the Pacific, and they’ve seen huge changes to the marine environment just in their lifetime,” said Dr Tamate, Director General of the Ministry of Resources in Niue and a University of Wollongong PhD graduate.

“Sharks are travelling closer to shore now and there are much fewer fish than there used to be. Young people think there’s still plenty of fish, but it has changed. We don’t want future generations to only see pictures of fish in books because there’s nothing left.”

The Pacific is a region undergoing intense social and environmental upheaval. For locals, as Dr Tamate’s experience shows, the future is not a given. The Western and Central Pacific, which includes the island nations of Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and Fiji, faces two great threats to its way of life: food security and climate change.

These issues are prevalent in most nations around the world, but it is in the Pacific region that the dual pressures look poised to critically upset the locals’ way of life and their place in the global landscape. And while the rest of the world may view the islands of the Pacific as tiny, and lacking in political might, their immense oceanic backyards mean they are, in reality, maritime superpowers.

Current and former University of Wollongong researchers are at the forefront of the push to aid the Pacific region, both on the ground and in research and governance roles. They are helping communities to combat the threats posed to food security—notably overfishing—by empowering them to engage with the issue and encouraging governments to take control of their decision-making power.

But, in a modern world defined by its abundance of food, what exactly is food security?

Professor Clive Schofield, Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones leader in UOW’s Global Challenges Program, said food security, as it applies to the Pacific, is essentially about fish.

“The rest of the world hears food security and thinks of agriculture and crops,” said Professor Schofield, a political geographer and international legal scholar. “But in the Pacific, food security means primarily fish and ensuring there is enough capacity in this resource to meet global and local demand. It is a question of nutrition as well, and ensuring that people in the Pacific have access to the fish in their own backyard.”

According to the World Health Organisation, the three pillars of food security are availability, access and use. In other words, helping developing nations to access sufficient quantities of food that are nutritious, affordable and environmentally sustainable. In the Pacific it relates to the plethora of fish that inhabit the vast waters surrounding these island nations and concerns over food security are only exacerbated by growing population pressures in the region.

Professor Schofield, who is Director of Research at the Australian Centre for Ocean Resource and Security (ANCORS), said tuna is the most valuable resource in the Pacific, in a monetary sense. Larger developed nations, such as Japan and the United States, greatly benefit from tuna reserves in the Western and Central Pacific, namely Bigeye, Bluefin, Skipjack and Albacore, but the island nations receive a mere slice of the profit. “The fish is their natural resource, but they have little of the industry and few jobs. They are denied access to the end market,” Professor Schofield said. “The fraction that goes back to the Pacific nations is critical to their economy, but it’s only a fraction of what that fish earns on the market.

“It also poses problems around nutrition. The people of the Pacific eat what they catch, and we need to ensure this supply continues for future generations.”

Dr Quentin Hanich, a Senior Research Fellow at ANCORS, said the world’s appetite for seafood has created a precarious situation in the Pacific—one with dire consequences for the region.

“The Atlantic, the Indian and the East Pacific Oceans have all been overfished or are at full capacity, but rather than address these issues, many of the boats and trawlers have simply moved into the West Pacific,” said Dr Hanich, who spends up to a week each month conducting research in the Pacific islands.

In an area that spans the size of China and Central America combined, with a population of fewer than 10 million, overfishing is extremely difficult to police. Each island has an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 miles, which functions as the limit of their maritime jurisdiction. But the sheer practicalities involved in surveying that amount of open water are simply overwhelming, said Professor Schofield.

“Kiribati, for example, has 3,000 square kilometres of ocean to cover, and one patrol boat, which is able to go out 30 days a year,” he said. “You need aerial surveillance, but for the nations who can do that—New Zealand, France, Australia—the area is not a priority.”

When it comes to overfishing and food security there are hard decisions that need to be made to ensure the world’s tuna stocks, in particular, are not wiped out. The Western and Central Pacific is home to the world’s most prolific tuna industry, worth approximately $6 billion.

It is an area of work Dr Hanich is passionate about and much of his research involves empowering local communities to take a ground-up approach to manage their own fisheries, and helping the governments of these island nations to stand up for their rights and “determine their own destinies”.

“Collaboration among Pacific nations is vital,” said Dr Hanich. “They are small nations, but in the absence of political might, they must find a way to agree on measures to prevent overfishing and provide a solution to food security. Fish don’t pay attention to maritime boundaries.”

It is a concern echoed by Dr Julia Xue, Chair Professor of KoGuan Law School at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, who believes poor fisheries management has created a difficult situation for communities in the Pacific.

Dr Xue, who completed her PhD on international fisheries law and policy at UOW, said cooperation among the Pacific nations is essential to creating a sustainable future. But it is not easy.

“We’ve been working to make people in the Pacific understand the situation and the impact of overfishing on the environment, but this generation want to get as much as possible,” she said. “They’re not concerned about protecting resources for the next generation.

“It’s very difficult to change that mindset,” Dr Xue admitted.

Dr Tamate completed her PhD in fisheries management at ANCORS and sees firsthand the impact that declining food security and unsustainable fishing practices have on the Pacific.

She said the region relies heavily on its surrounding waters for sustenance and financial support, which is being compromised by overfishing. In a traditional land sense, the island of Niue in the South Pacific is home to just 1,400 people, but it is a major player in the maritime sphere.

“Some of the islands don’t have enough land resources, and they depend so much on the ocean,” Dr Tamate said. “Kiribati, for example, doesn’t have enough land to support agriculture. The only major resource they have is fisheries. It’s their livelihood. If you deplete that stock, and there’s no fish left, what is the alternative for those people?”

Like Dr Tamate, Dr Hanich is on the frontline of this growing fight. He leads a major project in Kiribati that aims to work with local communities to improve coastal fisheries management. The project brings together the UOW Global Challenges Program, ANCORS, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and The WorldFish Centre, a research group that focuses on fisheries and aquaculture in the developing world. It also extends to the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu and, Dr Hanich said, is essential to empowering people in the Pacific to protect their resources.

One of Dr Hanich’s major concerns is sharing what he calls “the disproportionate burden of necessary conservation measures”. Who bears the responsibility for protecting the Pacific and its precious maritime resources?

“The larger nations are historically responsible for unsustainable fishing practices,” said Dr Hanich, who is also a member of the Fisheries Equity Research Network, which comprises researchers from marine institutions throughout the world. “Developing nations have never had a chance to fish on a large scale, but they’re expected to bear the conservation burden. It’s inconsistent and inequitable.”

Dr Tamate agrees and said Pacific Islanders simply want to ensure they receive their fair share of the billion-dollar profits.

“Food security for Pacific Islanders is a fundamental concern,” she said. “They have a right to make sure their resources are protected. And adequate compensation is essential to the economic development of the island states and nations.

“If we don’t manage our fisheries and our resources, future generations might not have the same opportunity to enjoy the resources that we have had.” While unsustainable fishing is creating an untenable situation for the people of the Pacific and raising questions about the future of the region, the problem is greatly compounded by the growing impact of climate change.

The Pacific is particularly vulnerable to climate change, which has the potential to exacerbate issues of food security and nutrition, such as damage to infrastructure and agricultural crops, and the relocation of precious fish stocks. For example, South Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, is only three metres above sea level, leaving little room to move in the event of rising seas or a catastrophic storm, Professor Schofield said.

This is a tiny part of the world. It is the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and food security, but it did the least to contribute to that.

“There are signs in Kiribati that say, ‘Rising Seas. Drowning Islands’,” said Professor Schofield of the island, which is largely made up of low-lying coastal atolls. “Climate change is very much a local concern, but it is intensified by issues of overpopulation. There are now people living in low-lying places where no-one had previously lived so every time there is a weather system, their homes are flooded.”

“This is a tiny part of the world. It is the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and food security, but it did the least to contribute to that. The rest of the world’s problems are coming home to roost.”

While these experts all have different roles to play in the fight against climate change and food security, they agree there is no simple solution. “In the short-term, the situation is confronting and challenging, but it is still survivable,” Dr Hanich said. “In 100 years from now, we will look back and say, ‘did we do everything we could?’. “If we move quickly, and do everything we can, we can adapt. But in the long term, to do nothing, we are not just giving up the Pacific, rising sea levels means we are also giving up Thirroul and Wollongong, and the global coastal cities of London, Venice and New York City.

“Australia has a direct interest. We don’t want a backyard full of failed states. Failed states lead to poverty, civil unrest, malnutrition and mass immigration problems. Where are all these people going to go when they don’t have a home?” Dr Hanich asks of the Pacific’s 10 million residents.

If the rest of the world is willing to benefit from the Pacific’s resources, they must also be willing to act when times get tough, Dr Tamate said. “Everybody has different interests, but they all recognise that something needs to be done. And that involves negotiation, which means there are always going to be winners and losers,” she said.

“Pacific Islanders are very vulnerable. The communities I’ve visited in Niue and throughout the Pacific are facing hard times. Actually seeing it with your own eyes, you realise what challenges they are going through.”

UOW’S GLOBAL CHALLENGES PROGRAM

The Global Challenges Program is a major research initiative at the University of Wollongong. The program, now in its second year, harnesses the multidisciplinary expertise of world-class researchers to address the complex problems facing our world.

The Global Challenges Program is focused on three major challenges: Living Well, Longer; Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones; and Manufacturing Innovation, under the overarching theme of Transforming Lives and Regions.

Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones, led by Professor Clive Schofield, examines how we can protect and preserve our precious coastlines and marine spaces. More than half the world, including 66 per cent of Australians, live on the coast. Our environmental, economic, social and cultural health is intrinsically linked to the ocean, which is why it is so essential that we safeguard against the myriad problems that threaten these spaces: climate change, food security, sustainability and maritime safety.

Under the Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones theme, the Global Challenges Program has a number of projects that will help protect our maritime environment and examine the importance of the deep blue to communities around the globe.

It is exploring food security in the Pacific region, flooding and urban inundation in Jakarta, the impact of deep water anchors on sea beds, mangrove regeneration in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta and the security of maritime vessels.


  • DR JOSIE TAMATE
    UOW Doctor of Philosophy (Law) 2014
  • DR QUENTIN HANICH
    UOW Doctor of Philosophy (Law) 2011
  • DR JULIA XUE
    UOW Doctor of Philosophy (Law) 2004