A New Frontier: Fishing And Carbon Emissions In The Pacific

Emissions from fishing are a 'grey' area in shipping decarbonisation. Is it an important area for the pacific to be asking clarity on from the UN family?
17 Mar 2020 15:55
A New Frontier: Fishing And Carbon Emissions In The Pacific
  • Maria Sahib is a research associate at the MCST, a joint initiative between the Government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and the University of the South Pacific to implement a whole of country strategy to transition the RMI to a low carbon transport future as a pilot and catalyst for other Small Island States. Ms Sahib works across a range of Pacific transport policy and is a fisheries GHG emissions specialist.

In recent weeks my colleagues have been discussing with you the international decarbonising shipping debate and what might mean for the future of shipping in the Pacific.

The negotiations at International Maritime Organisation (IMO) are slow and hard fought and largely about the large scale emitters – the containerships, bulkers and tankers which collectively provide the majority of global ship emissions.


At this scale it’s all about the fuels and the international maritime research industry has already set sail on its greatest voyage of discovery, the $1+trillion search for hydrogen.

The proportion of total fleet emissions attributable to Pacific (and other small island countries) is minute and the question we have been asking is – what happens to our small ships in this global decarbonisation experiment? About a quarter of ship emissions comes from small ships – under 10000 tonnes.

These ships carry less than 5 per cent of world cargo. But they are servicing the majority of people in the South. Will they also benefit or will they be left further behind?

Global fishing effort is very small in comparison to all shipping emissions. The GHG emissions from fishing vessels is only 2.3 per cent out of the total CO2 emissions from shipping. Under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) carbon accountancy rules, such emissions are attributed to agriculture, not transport.

Fisheries and climate change is an area in which research has been focused on the impact of climate change on fisheries resources, for instance, the decrease in economic returns, redistribution of marine resources and vulnerability of the already vulnerable countries.

My area of research, however, protrudes to the wider issue of fisheries sustainability and considers fishing emissions and the impact this has on the economies of Pacific Island countries.

Given the importance of fisheries, it is essential we understand the carbon pricing changes that are about to effect it from decarbonisation agendas.

In order to understand this area, a number of international instruments and various international organisations have to be seen through the lens of fisheries and the fishing industry as a whole.

The international organisations which are found in this nexus are the IMO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

This article raises critical questions on the need to address carbon emissions from fishing vessels in the Pacific region and the need to create a research area on carbon emissions from fisheries and the impact it has on atoll nations in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).


In the Pacific, we are vulnerable to climate change impact because of the very nature of our physical setting, the most vulnerable being our atoll nations.

The Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu with Tokelau are a few of the tuna rich countries.

The number of fishing vessels traversing the Pacific is in thousands and the carbon emissions from these boats are largely unknown.

In order to address carbon emissions from shipping, in designing the IMO Initial Strategy, a broad context was considered, including other existing instruments related to the law of the sea.

The context includes United Nations Convention on Law of the Seas (UNLCOS), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its related legal instruments, including the Paris Agreement.

It was also in the context of the role IMO has committed for the development, adoption and assistance in implementation of environmental regulations applicable to international shipping.

These stem from the 2017 decision of the IMO Assembly to adopt a Strategic Direction entitled “Respond to Climate Change” and are supported by both UNFCCC and the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. However, issues of Fisheries emissions and carbon accountancy are not to date being prioritised in the response.

The question still looms about which of the UN family should lead on addressing carbon emissions from fishing vessels.

The FAO is also tasked with providing assistance in disaster preparedness planning and in dealing with the impacts of climate change at the national, regional and international levels as well as assisting fishing communities affected by natural disasters and prolonged emergencies ( But it is not the UN Logistics lead, that task falls to the World Food Programme.

Which brings us to the WTO which plays a vital role in facilitating international trade in order for people to generally have access to goods and services.


The WTO emanated from international trade negotiations. Agreements made following negotiation at WTO are generally signed by most trading nations and provide the ground rules for international commerce.

They are binding contracts which countries must honour to keep their trade policies within agreed limits.

Their purpose is to help producers of good and services to exporters and importers conduct their business while allowing governments to meet social and environment objectives.

The WTO trade rules allow for trade to flow as freely as possible and provide trading confidence. Of course, these rules underpin most global trade in fisheries.

Each of these three UN agencies working under the ambit of the international legal framework akin to their purpose, but each has a similar primary function to protect the environment and therefore have common responsibility for the issue.

This in itself speaks volume in the manner in which these organisations can in fact bring in effective change to address climate change crisis affecting the humanity today.

Within this wide area of international shipping and greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction strategy, fisheries or the fishing industry was in large part left out of the considerations.

Therefore, the question of under which ambit does the fishing carbon emissions falls arises.


The issues surrounding shipping emissions is currently more prominent in IMO than any other organisation, and it would appear the most logical leader for addressing the matter of fishing as far as GHG from ships and vessels are concerned.

Is it a consideration for the FAO? What are the technological changes that would absorb fishing vessels also to reduce carbon emissions?

What are the economic implications to reduce carbon emissions from fishing vessels? What are the social implications to reduce carbon from fishing vessels?


There is potential for new discourse in addressing carbon emissions from fishing industry. The fundamental question is under which framework does it fall and who would take the lead role.

Carbon emissions from fishing industry or fishing emissions, is one of the areas yet be fully researched.

Why is this important for the Pacific? Only because climate change, acidification and over fishing pose and existential threat to our way of life and this issue will have disproportionate economic impact on our countries in the future if left unaddressed.

And because fisheries is the single major income source for most Pacific countries who are the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, any substantive debate that potentially affects the global economics of fisheries should be of high importance to Pacific negotiators

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