The case for smaller scales

Michel Blanc with flags of member nations of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. Photo...
Michel Blanc with flags of member nations of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. Photo supplied.
Eat smaller fish. That is one potential solution for Pacific Island people facing the effects of global climate change. The University of Otago's Prof Lloyd Spencer Davis reports from Noumea.

Michel Blanc is a man on a mission. The Noumea-based fisheries scientist shares more than a name with the famous actor of his native France: he has movie-star good looks married with an easy charm that could melt hearts faster than New Caledonia's searing sunshine can melt butter.

That sunshine is part of a big problem facing the Pacific. In combination with increased carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, the climate is changing.

As temperatures rise, coral reefs, which support the peoples of the Pacific by providing a habitat for the fish that form the core of their diet, are under threat.

Pacific Island nations are for the most part countries of little more than coastlines; clusters of small islands ringed by coral reefs that constitute the equivalent of our farmland. If we are a nation of sheep, they are nations of fish.

According to Johann Bell, of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), and editor of a new book, Vulnerability of Tropical Pacific Fisheries and Aquaculture to Climate Change, annual per capita consumption of fish in the member countries can be four times or more (up to 146kg per person) the worldwide average of just 17kg per person.

They don't just eat fish; their lives depend on fish. But as sea-surface temperatures rise, coral is becoming bleached and dying, no longer providing a haven for reef fish and, in combination with the effect of overfishing, such fish are becoming fewer in number and harder to catch.

SPC predicts the human population in the Pacific will increase by 50% by 2030, while tropical Pacific reef fish populations are predicted to decline by up to 20% by 2050 and up to 50% by 2100.

But Mr Blanc has a plan, a plan that could save the peoples of the Pacific and their fishing lifestyle. When asked what Pacific Islanders should do, he gives his winning smile and says, "Eat small, not big."

Traditionally, Pacific Islanders have fished for large fish such as parrotfish, grouper and snapper that call coral reefs their home. But eating such large fish that are so high in the food chain does not make a lot of sense ecologically.

Mr Blanc is advocating the islanders switch their diet to small schooling open-water fish such as sardines and anchovies. As he explains, it takes 7kg of such small fish to produce 1kg of a fish the equivalent in size to a salmon.

It is much more energy-efficient to target the small fish. Not only that, such small fish are highly nutritious, are found in aggregations of immense numbers; they breed at a fast rate and are, therefore, resilient to fishing pressure; plus, being creatures of the open water, their existence is less dependent upon the reefs.

The first issue to overcome with such a switch, however, is whether islanders can readily adapt their fishing techniques to capture the small schooling fish.

To that end, Mr Blanc has been touting bagan, a technique of fishing practised in Indonesia he hopes can be successfully translocated to Pacific atolls to capture small fish.

In the next few days, a team of Mr Blanc's assistants will depart from the Secretariat of the Pacific Community's base in Noumea to conduct a trial in the Marshall Islands. There they will build a wooden platform anchored in the middle of a lagoon. At night, bright lights will be used to attract schools of sardines and anchovies.

Nets that hang down from the platform will be used to haul them in. Mr Blanc is confident a single bagan should yield 50kg to 200kg of fish each night.

The second issue is to convince the locals small fish are good to eat. As a consequence, the SPC officers will be providing recipes and cooking instructions for the Marshall Islanders to use.

Sardines and anchovies can be prepared in many different ways, but Mr Blanc says his preferred way of eating such fish derives from his Mediterranean roots: "Filleting the fish, cooking them for a very short time in lime juice and then eating them in a fish salad."

If the trial is successful, Mr Blanc hopes it will be adopted throughout the Pacific. Of course, this is really nothing new: penguins have long realised the value of targeting small schooling prey species that are found in vast numbers.

When asked whether he is trying to turn people into penguins, Mr Blanc throws his head back in laughter and runs a hand through long greyish hair that could have been the model for Robert Downey Jr's Sherlock Holmes.

"That's right. There are no penguins in the tropical islands so we are going to introduce a new species." Even though he's grinning again, his intensity suggests he is only half joking.

Prof Davis, the director of the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago, was invited to a recent forum on communication for scientists of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in Noumea, New Caledonia.

This is the first of two articles from the forum.

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