Since long before the steel-hulled fishing boats from foreign countries arrived in the South Pacific its people have had their own systems for sharing the ocean’s catches. In the New Zealand colony of Tokelau, in the middle of the region, the 1,400 people living on its three atolls practise a system called inati, which ensures every household gets fish. Several times a month all atoll men are given time to prepare and bait lines and the “grey hairs” – as leaders are called – decide on the targeted fish, including tuna and trevally, using traditional knowledge of the best grounds, along with tides and the phases of the moon. They set off late at night and return 12 hours later, well after the sun has risen. Their catch is then sorted into different species and sizes. Bigger families get bigger shares.
Across the Pacific, traditional fishing practices like this take place alongside huge commercial fishing operations, where the catches are not always shared so fairly, nor disclosed so transparently. Having grossly overfished its own regional waters, notably the China seas, China’s fleets are now taking huge quantities of tuna from the world’s most fertile fishing ground. Since 2012 the Chinese Pacific fishing fleet has grown by more than 500%.
A survey of boats operating in the Pacific in 2016 found that Chinese-flagged vessels far outstripped those of any other country. China had 290 industrial vessels licensed to operate in the region at the time, more than a quarter of the total, and more than the 240 from all the Pacific nations combined.