“What do they do if the fish are gone?”: Fisheries and Human Migration

Fisheries play a prominent role in the cultural identity, economy, and ecology of Oceania. As climate change and IUU fishing interact to place immense pressure on the global fisheries system, the people of the Pacific Islands face the loss of not only their culture and land, but their fisheries-based livelihoods from the sea. 

In part one of this blog series, I discussed the significance of fisheries to the people of Oceania, then in part two, detailed the drivers of change that are damaging these essential fisheries. In part three, I’ll use the question posed by Andres Cisneros-Montemayor, researcher at the University of British Columbia, as a jumping off point to frame my thinking around migration and fisheries: “What do they do if the fish are gone?”

In this Policy Research Project, I am a member of the team tasked with evaluating the connections between climate change and migration in Oceania. Up to this point, our attention has been on climate change as a whole and the specific issue of fisheries has been a tangential component of our studies. We have often discussed resource loss as a contributing factor in a Pacific Islander’s decision to move, but we typically frame it as part of a larger story around economic immobility or the effects of climate change (e.g. sea level rise).

My purpose in this fall blog series was to do a deeper dive into the role of fisheries on the society and economies of Oceania. In this post, I’ll let you in on my thought process as I attempt to determine the role fisheries play in Pacific Islander migration.

Climate change, fisheries, and migration: it’s complicated

My teammate Andrew explains in his blog post about Pacific Islander perspectives on migration that a central part of Oceania’s culture is the necessity of travel to other islands in order to sustain your livelihood and maintain societal connections. The interconnectivity of island chains and cultural, social, and linguistic ties between some island nations result in movement that is simply a part of life for those living in Oceania. For the work we are doing on the migration team, we are concentrating on migration that is not part of the ‘normal’ movement of Pacific Islanders, but on migration that is prompted by external factors, principally climate change. 

So, “what do they do if the fish are gone?” In this blog series, attempting to separate out fisheries from climate change as a driver of migration is where things get complicated, because climate change is a driver of fisheries degradation. Oceanic impacts of climate change include ocean acidification, elevated sea levels and sea surface temperatures, and deoxygenation, all of which have dangerous effects on the world’s fishery resources. Therefore, aside from the adverse consequences of IUU fishing, which can be approached as a fisheries management or regulatory problem, attempting to disentangle (and ultimately turn around) climate change and fisheries degradation as unique drivers of migration in Oceania is highly complex.

Although fisheries-related migration is nestled within the larger issue of climate change-related migration, the study of fisheries as a driver behind migration remains important. Adding further specificity and understanding to the causes of migration in this region will allow Pacific Island countries and the international community to address fisheries-related reasons for migration, which may be more practical and attainable than ‘solving climate change.’ In reviewing the literature around fisheries and migration, the role of climate-induced fisheries challenges prompting migration in Oceania appears to be a knowledge gap.

Essential questions to answer in order to understand fisheries as a cause of migration in Oceania

In order to fill this information gap, we as researchers would need to ask several essential questions:

How important are fisheries to the daily life of people in Oceania? How strongly would they rank issues with fisheries among any other reasons they may be deciding to leave? If they are facing other issues, such as sea level rise, where do issues with fisheries specifically compare to others that can also be ascribed to climate change?
In what parts of Oceania are people already being forced to migrate or choosing to migrate due to climate-related issues? How significant for them is the role of fisheries degradation as a climate-related issue?
In my first post, I described large-scale industrial fisheries in Oceania as an industry dominated by commercial tuna fisheries, where Pacific Island nations gain government revenue from a permit system that allows extra-regional nations to fish in Oceania’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs; zones extending 200 nautical miles from land borders of each country in Oceania). In part two (section: Oceania’s tuna fisheries will feel the consequences of climate change), I referenced studies suggesting that as climate change continues, it will push tuna to migrate east, impacting the fisheries yield in EEZs of nations such as Kiribati, Nauru, and Tuvalu, which rely heavily upon commercial fisheries as a source of income. The likelihood of tuna movement informs the next three sets of questions:
What happens to the fisheries industry when tuna follow warmer currents to the point where they are no longer accessible in Pacific Island countries’ EEZs? Is there a potential in the future for multiple countries to cooperate and share rights to a single EEZ in eastern Oceania where tuna may be plentiful? How will the motivation for jobs in the commercial tuna industry compare to other motivators for migration in the minds of the people of Oceania?
How important is it to Pacific Islanders to retain their roles as fishermen? Can this information help us to extrapolate where individuals may migrate to in the future, if we know how important remaining by the sea is to them and climate change presents limited viable options?
What Pacific Island countries and territories are most susceptible to fisheries oscillations? What is the threshold of fisheries degradation that would need to be met that would cause people to leave their home island? How close are we to reaching these thresholds? How does this differ within Oceania?

And lastly,

What would happen to a country’s EEZ if they are forced to vacate their land due to sea level rise? Would the country retain its rights to the fisheries within those boundaries? Do those waters become international waters if an entire nation of people become stateless?

Chasing down the answers to each of these questions would both provide a more full picture of the role of fisheries in driving migration in Oceania while also bringing additional understanding of Pacific Islanders’ impressions of climate-induced migration. Although it is tangential to the larger purpose of my team’s work on migration in the region, I believe understanding the role of fisheries in a Pacific Islander’s determination of whether or not to migrate is important for the purpose of our project.

What does this all mean for the people of Oceania?

As with every aspect of the climate change discussion, Pacific Islanders are having to deal with the impacts of a situation that they did not create. Not only are their seas warming and rising, but global climate change is doing immense harm to the fisheries they rely upon for survival. 

To answer the initial question, “what do they do if the fish are gone?” I don’t know. The fish are disappearing primarily because of climate change, which is also affecting the people of Oceania directly in myriad other ways. If we reach a time when the fish disappear, will the people who inhabit these islands still be there, or will they all have already migrated away, either by choice or necessity?

Brittany Horton is in her second year at The LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. She is pursuing a Master of Global Policy Studies, with an emphasis in environmental and security policy. She came to the LBJ School after graduating from the University of Texas at San Antonio where she earned a Master of Science in Environmental Science. Her research areas of interest center on wildlife, and include human-wildlife conflict, Traditional Chinese Medicine, illegal wildlife poaching and trade, and the impact of conflicts on conservation outcomes.

One comment on ““What do they do if the fish are gone?”: Fisheries and Human Migration
  1. Barbara Page says:

    I don’t know if there is an academic paper on the subject, but when I visited Fiji over a period of 4 years, the following occurred based on anecdotes and my observations: Fiji had sold its commercial fishery to China. Over a 4 year period, it became more difficult to get wild-caught fish. I remember having too much fish, to just portions available after a fisherman went out to gather what he could for a day. I asked how locals were coping with this situation, and people mentioned that they were eating more canned food,had a greater dependence on imports with food prices rising and nutrition worsening. Fijian hotels catering to foreigners were serving Norwegian aquacultured salmon not local fish. And, I ran into Fijians studying aquaculture of tilapia to attempt that in Fiji. This occurred about 3 years ago, so my info is now dated. It would be interesting for someone to see what has happened since.

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