Pohnpei coastal fisheries are trending toward collapse

By Kevin L. Rhodes, Ph.D.

In 2015, Dr. Kevin Rhodes, Coastal Fisheries Coordinator for MarAlliance and Dalia Hernandez-Ortiz from University of Guam teamed up with The Pohnpei State Office of Fisheries and Aquaculture (OFA) and College of Micronesia (COM) marine science graduates to conduct a fish market survey. The 2015 market information was compared to information taken ten years earlier in 2006. The purpose of the 2015 survey was to examine the changes in coastal fisheries 10 years on, inform state government on the fishery’s current status, and help identify the most beneficial and most needed management options.

What was found should be an eye-opener to state leaders, market owners and fishers. Since 2006, the total weight of marketed coral reef fish has declined by 20%, or 10,000 lbs., while the use of nighttime spearfishing and small-mesh gillnets, which are considered unsustainable fishing practices, has increased from 76% to 82%. Boats are now piling on more fishers, but the number of pounds a fisher takes in an average hour has gone down. At the same time, the amount of money fishers take home for an hour of fishing was nearly half of what is was in 2006. That means fishers are working harder to fish, but making far less money for their efforts.

Also since the last survey in 2006, changes were found in where fishing occurs, with more fishing outside the reefs now as fish inside the lagoon have declined. Fish like grouper and snapper that once made up a big contribution to catch, are now being replaced by parrotfish, surgeonfish and unicornfish. Parrotfish, surgeonfish and unicornfish are needed to clean the increasing amounts of sediment off of reefs and control the algae that are now beginning to smother corals both inside and outside the reef.

At the same time, all of these species are being caught at smaller sizes, meaning fewer eggs for future fish populations. Some groupers that appeared in catch in 2006 were simply ‘missing’ in catch in 2015, while once undesirable fish, like emperors, boxfish, angelfish and spadefish can now be found in the markets.

These findings all point to an increasingly unsustainable fishery and in combination are signs of severe overfishing. While it’s unlikely we’ll ever return to what our fathers or grandfathers saw on the reefs, we can prevent the fishery from collapsing but for this to happen the government now needs to make some hard choices, since these issues have been largely neglected for some decades as nighttime spearfishing and commercialization have expanded.

Recommended actions include giving more power and more resources to the municipal governments, changing coastal habitats from common use (open access) to limited use, banning nighttime spearfishing and small-mesh gillnets, and improving existing enforcement within marine protected areas and markets. More funding, better training and more manpower are all needed for these things to work.

Nighttime spearfishing, the main culprit in Pohnpeis’ race to overfish, is banned in a number of countries because of its destructive nature. Nighttime spearfishers target dormant fish and spawning aggregations, many which are needed to keep reefs clean or replenish reefs, while small-mesh nets catch juveniles and reduce the amount of fish providing eggs for the next generation.

While these recommended management actions may seem harsh, the alternative will be even worse as coastal fishing communities find less fish and have less money to support their needs. Uncontrolled fishing and delays in decision making will only hasten additional decline and guarantee fisheries collapse. Alternatively, enacting serious reforms, including a ban on nighttime spearfishing and gillnets should quickly restore fish in coastal reefs, provide fishers with more cash in the long run, and potentially give Pohnpei a shot at ecotourism development.