SYDNEY (Reuters) - As the tiny South Pacific nation of Kiribati battles to save its islands from climate change-induced rising sea levels and drought, in an ironic twist the strongest El Nino in nearly 20 years is providing it with an economic bonanza in tuna.
The warming of the Pacific Ocean due to the El Nino weather system has sent tuna schools migrating away from traditional waters near Papua New Guinea and toward Kiribati to the east, allowing the island nation to sell access rights to international fishing firms in excess of $15,000 a day.
The Asian Development Bank this week estimated Kiribati will earn a record A$150 million ($109 million) during 2015 from fishing licences alone, about twice the amount projected at the start of the year, and equivalent to nearly 80 percent of gross domestic product.
“The catch data shows that in 2014, catches around Papua New Guinea were down, while around Kiribati - they were through the roof, and that is a sign of El Nino,” said Professor Quentin Hanich, University of Wollongong in Australia.
Just over 700,000 tonnes of tuna were caught in Kiribati’s waters in 2014, more than double the amount caught one year earlier and twice as much as Papua New Guinea.
Data for 2015 is not yet available, but scientists expect the trend to be even larger.
Tuna fishing is the Pacific’s greatest natural resource, accounting for about 60 percent of all tuna caught globally, according to data from the Secretariat of Pacific Community.
Kiribati’s total land mass is only about 800 square kms (497 miles) and on average is just two metres (six feet) above sea level. It has seen the ocean swallow large chunks of its coastline, creating the prospect it may become the first nation to be a casualty of global warming.
The current El Nino has bought widespread drought, stoking shortages of food staples and shrinking drinking water supplies.
In contrast to other Pacific island nations, which boast mining, agriculture and tourism industries, Kiribati’s economy relies almost entirely on its fishing industry. “If that disappears, the country disappears with it,” said Hanich.
Kiribati earns the majority of its revenue from licensing overseas fishing vessels, predominantly from the European Union, Korea, the United States, Japan and China, selling access days to fish in its waters.
Its watery exclusive economic zone is one of the largest in the Pacific, spanning 3.6 million square kms (2.23 million miles), an area about the size of India.
Although it has not yet revealed how many days it has sold in 2015, fees to fish its fertile waters have more than tripled between 2012 and 2015, and now top $15,000 per day.
Purse seine vessels in the South Pacific have used 38,000 days as of November, down from 46,000 days for the same period last year, according to the eight South Pacific nations which control tuna fishing in the region.
The eight countries expect total revenue from tuna fishing in 2015 to be around $350 million, up from $64 million in 2010.
Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Michael Perry