A whopping 191 different bat species live in the Pacific Islands across Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia — but these are, collectively, the most imperilled in the world. In fact, five of the nine bat species that have gone extinct in the last 160 years have come from this region.
For too long, the conservation of Pacific Island bats has been largely overlooked in science. Of the 191 existing species, 25% are threatened with extinction, and we lack information to assess the status of a further 15%.
Just as these bats are rare and far-flung across the Pacific islands, so is the expertise and research needed to conserve them along with the vital ecosystem services they provide, such as pollination, seed dispersal, and insect control.
The first-ever Pacific Islands Bat Forum, held earlier this month, sought to change this, bringing together a new network of researchers, conservationists, and community members — 380 people from 40 countries and territories — dedicated to their survival.
So, why should we care about these bats anyway?
Conserving Pacific Island bats is paramount for preserving the region’s diverse human cultures and for safeguarding the healthy functioning of island ecosystems.
So let’s meet four fascinating — but threatened — Pacific Island bats that deserve more attention.
1. Pacific sheath-tailed bat
Conservation status: endangered
Distribution: American Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Samoa, Tonga
The Pacific sheath-tailed bat (Emballonura semicaudata) weighs just five-grams and has a weak, fluttering flight. Yet somehow, it has colonised some of the smaller and more isolated islands across the Pacific, from Samoa to Palau. That’s across 6,000 kilometres of ocean!
Over the past decade, this insect-eating, cave-roosting bat has disappeared from around 50% of islands where it has been recorded. The reasons for this are unclear. Disturbance of cave roosts, introduced species such as lantana and goats, and increasing use of pesticides, may all have played a part.
Unfortunately, the Pacific sheath-tailed bat is now presumed extinct in many former parts of its range, including American Samoa, Tonga, and several islands of the Northern Mariana Islands. This leaves Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Fiji as remaining strongholds for the species, though data is limited.
2. Montane monkey-faced bat
Conservation status: critically endangered
Distribution: Solomon Islands
There are six species of monkey-faced bat — all are threatened, and all are limited to islands across the Solomon Islands, Bougainville, and Fiji.
The montane monkey-faced bat (Pteralopex pulchra) is one species, and weighs around 280 grams, eats fruit and nectar, and has incredibly robust teeth. But perhaps most startling is its ruby-red eyes and wing membranes that are marbled with white and black.
The montane monkey-faced bat has been recorded only once by scientists on a single mountain (Mt Makarakomburu) above the altitude of 1,250 metres, on Guadalcanal Island. This tiny range makes it vulnerable to rare, extreme events such as cyclones, which could wipe out a whole population in one swoop. And being limited to mountain-top cloud forests could place it at greater risk from climate change.
It’s an extreme example of both the endemism (species living in a small, defined area) and inadequacies of scientific knowledge that challenge Pacific island bat conservation.
3. Ornate flying-fox
Conservation status: vulnerable
Distribution: New Caledonia
Like many fruit bats across the Pacific, New Caledonia’s endemic ornate flying-fox (Pteropus ornatus) is an emblematic species. Flying-foxes are hunted for bush meat, used as part of cultural practices by the Kanaks (Melanesian first settlers), are totems for some clans, and feature as a side dish during the “New Yam celebration” each year. Their bones and hair are also used to make traditional money.
Because they’re so highly prized, flying-foxes can be subject to illegal trafficking. Despite the Northern and Southern Provinces of New Caledonia having regulated hunting, flying-fox populations continue to decline. Recent studies predict 80% of the population will be gone in the next 30 years if hunting continues at current levels.
On a positive note, earlier this year the Northern Province launched a conservation management program to protect flying-fox populations while incorporating cultural values and practices.
4. Fijian free-tailed bat
Conservation status: endangered
Distribution: Fiji, Vanuatu
In many ways, the Fijian free-tailed bat (Chaerephon bregullae) has become the face of proactive bat conservation in the Pacific Islands. This insect-eating bat requires caves to roost during the day and is threatened when these caves are disturbed by humans as it interrupts their daytime roosting. The loss of foraging habitat is another major threat.
The only known colony of reproducing females lives in Nakanacagi Cave in Fiji, with around 7,000 bats. In 2014, an international consortium with Fijian conservationists and community members came together to protect Nakanacagi Cave. As a result, it became recognised as a protected area in 2018.
But this species shares many characteristics with three of the nine bat species that have gone extinct globally. This includes being a habitat specialist, its unknown cause of decline, and its potential exposure to chemicals through insect foraging. It’s important we continue to pay close attention to its well-being.
In many Pacific Islands, bats aren’t protected by national laws. Instead, in many countries, most land is under customary ownership, which means it’s owned by Indigenous peoples. This includes land in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. Consequently, community landowners have the power to enact their own conservation actions.
The emerging Pacific Bat Network, inspired by the recent forum, aims to foster collaborative relationships between scientific conservationists and local leaders for species protection, while respecting cultural practices.
As the Baru Conservation Alliance — a locally-led, not-for-profit group from Malaita, Solomon Islands — put it in their talk at the forum:
conservation is not a new thing for Kwaio.
Now the forum has ended, the diverse network of people passionate about bat conservation is primed to work together to strengthen the conservation of these unique and treasured bats of the Pacific.
The Pacific Ocean is the deepest, largest ocean on Earth, covering about a third of the globe’s surface. An ocean that vast may seem invincible. Yet across its reach – from Antarctica in the south to the Arctic in the north, and from Asia to Australia to the Americas – the Pacific Ocean’s delicate ecology is under threat.
In most cases, human activity is to blame. We have systematically pillaged the Pacific of fish. We have used it as a rubbish tip – garbage has been found even in the deepest point on Earth, in the Mariana Trench 11,000 metres below sea level.
And as we pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the Pacific, like other oceans, is becoming more acidic. It means fish are losing their sense of sight and smell, and sea organisms are struggling to build their shells.
Oceans produce most of the oxygen we breathe. They regulate the weather, provide food, and give an income to millions of people. They are places of fun and recreation, solace and spiritual connection. So, healthy, vibrant oceans benefit us all. And by better understanding the threats to the precious Pacific, we can start the long road to protecting it.
The series opens with five profiles delving into ancient Indian Ocean trade networks, Pacific plastic pollution, Arctic light and life, Atlantic fisheries and the Southern Ocean’s impact on global climate. It’s brought to you by The Conversation’s international network.
The ocean plastic scourge
The problem of ocean plastic was scientifically recognised in the 1960s after two scientists saw albatross carcasses littering the beaches of the northwest Hawaiian Islands in the northern Pacific. Almost three in four albatross chicks, who died before they could fledge, had plastic in their stomachs.
Now, plastic debris is found in all major marine habitats around the world, in sizes ranging from nanometers to meters. A small portion of this accumulates into giant floating “garbage patches”, and the Pacific Ocean is famously home to the largest of them all.
Plastic debris in the oceans presents innumerable hazards for marine life. Animals can get tangled in debris such as discarded fishing nets, causing them to be injured or drown.
Some organisms, such as microscopic algae and invertebrates, can also hitch a ride on floating debris, travelling large distances across the oceans. This means they can be dispersed out of their natural range, and can colonise other regions as invasive species.
And of course, wildlife can be badly harmed by ingesting debris, such as microplastics less than five millimetres in size. This plastic can obstruct an animal’s mouth or accumulate in its stomach. Often, the animal dies a slow, painful death.
Seabirds, in particular, often mistake floating plastics for food. A 2019 study found there was a 20% chance seabirds would die after ingesting a single item, rising to 100% after consuming 93 items.
And since floating plastics in the open ocean are transported mainly by ocean surface currents and winds, plastic debris accumulates on island coastlines along their path. Kamilo Beach, on the south-eastern tip of Hawaii’s Big Island, is considered one of the world’s worst for plastic pollution. Up to 20 tonnes of debris wash onto the beach each year.
Similarly, on uninhabited Henderson Island, part of the Pitcairn Island chain in the south Pacific, 18 tonnes of plastic have accumulated on a beach just 2.5km long. Several thousand pieces of plastic wash up each day.
Subtropical garbage patches
Plastic waste can have different fates in the ocean: some sink, some wash up on beaches and some float on the ocean surface, transported by currents, wind and waves.
Around 1% of plastic waste accumulates in five subtropical “garbage patches” in the open ocean. They’re formed as a result of ocean circulation, driven by the changing wind fields and the Earth’s rotation.
There are two subtropical garbage patches in the Pacific: one in the northern and one in the southern hemisphere.
The northern accumulation region is separated into an eastern patch between California and Hawaii, and a western patch, which extends eastwards from Japan.
Our ocean garbage shame
First discovered by Captain Charles Moore in the early 2000s, the eastern patch is better known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch because it’s the largest by both size (around 1.6 million square kilometers) and amount of plastic. By weight, this garbage patch can hold more than 100 kilograms per square kilometre.
The garbage patch in the southern Pacific is located off Valparaiso, Chile, extending to the west. It has lower concentrations compared to its giant counterpart in the northeast.
Discarded fishing nets make up around 45% of the total plastic weight in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Waste from the 2011 Japan tsunami is also a major contributor, making up an estimated 20% of the patch.
Each year, up to 15 million tonnes of plastic waste are estimated to make their way into the ocean from coastlines and rivers. This amount is expected to double by 2025 as plastic production continues to increase.
We must act urgently to stem the flow. This includes developing plans to collect and remove the plastics and, vitally, stop producing so much in the first place.
Fisheries on the verge of collapse
As the largest and deepest sea on Earth, the Pacific supports some of the world’s biggest fisheries. For thousands of years, people have relied on these fisheries for their food and livelihoods.
But, around the world, including in the Pacific, fishing operations are depleting fish populations faster than they can recover. This overfishing is considered one of the most serious threats to the world’s oceans.
Humans take about 80 million tonnes of wildlife from the sea each year. In 2019, the world’s leading scientists said of all threats to marine biodiversity over the past 50 years, fishing has caused the most harm. They said 33% of fish species were overexploited, 60% were being fished to the maximum level, and just 7% were underfished.
The decline in fish populations is not just a problem for humans. Fish play an important role in marine ecosystems and are a crucial link in the ocean’s complex food webs.
Not plenty of fish in the sea
Overfishing happens when humans extract fish resources beyond the maximum level, known as the “maximum sustainable yield”. Fishing beyond this causes global fish stocks to decline, disrupts food chains, degrades habitats, and creates food scarcity for humans.
The Pacific Ocean is home to huge tuna fisheries, which provide almost 65% of the global tuna catch each year. But the long-term survival of many tuna populations is at risk.
For example, a study released in 2013 found numbers of bluefin tuna – a prized fish used to make sushi – had declined by more than 96% in the Northern Pacific Ocean.
Developing countries, including Indonesia and China, are major overfishers, but so too are developing nations.
Along Canada’s west coast, Pacific salmon populations have declined rapidly since the early 1990s, partly due to overfishing. And Japan was recently heavily criticised for a proposal to increase quotas on Pacific bluefin tuna, a species reportedly at just 4.5% of its historic population size.
Experts say overfishing is also a problem in Australia. For example, research in 2018 showed large fish species were rapidly declining around the nation due to excessive fishing pressure. In areas open to fishing, exploited populations fell by an average of 33% in the decade to 2015.
So what’s driving overfishing?
There are many reasons why overfishing occurs and why it is goes unchecked. The evidence points to:
Let’s take Indonesia as an example. Indonesia lies between the Pacific and Indian oceans and is the world’s third-biggest producer of wild-capture ﬁsh after China and Peru. Some 60% of the catch is made by small-scale ﬁshers. Many hail from poor coastal communities.
Overfishing was first reported in Indonesia in the 1970s. It prompted a presidential decree in 1980, banning trawling off the islands of Java and Sumatra. But overfishing continued into the 1990s, and it persists today. Target species include reef fishes, lobster, prawn, crab, and squid.
Indonesia’s experience shows how there is no easy fix to the overfishing problem. In 2017, the Indonesian government issued a decree that was supposed to keep fishing to a sustainable level – 12.5 million tonnes per year. Yet, in may places, the practice continued – largely because the rules were not clear and local enforcement was inadequate.
Implementation was complicated by the fact that almost all Indonesia’s smaller fishing boats come under the control of provincial governments. This reveals the need for better cooperation between levels of government in cracking down on overfishing.
What else can we do?
To prevent overfishing, governments should address the issue of poverty and poor education in small fishing communities. This may involve finding them a new source of income. For example in the town of Oslob in the Philippines, former fishermen and women have turned to tourism – feeding whale sharks tiny amounts of krill to draw them closer to shore so tourists can snorkel or dive with them.
Tackling overfishing in the Pacific will also require cooperation among nations to monitor fishing practices and enforce the rules.
And the world’s network of marine protected areas should be expanded and strengthened to conserve marine life. Currently, less than 3% of the world’s oceans are highly protected “no take” zones. In Australia, many marine reserves are small and located in areas of little value to commercial fishers.
The collapse of fisheries around the world shows just how vulnerable our marine life is. It’s clear that humans are exploiting the oceans beyond sustainable levels. Billions of people rely on seafood for protein and for their livelihoods. But by allowing overfishing to continue, we harm not just the oceans, but ourselves.
The tropical and subtropical waters of the Pacific Ocean are home to more than 75% of the world’s coral reefs. These include the Great Barrier Reef and more remote reefs in the Coral Triangle, such as those in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
Coral reefs are bearing the brunt of climate change. We hear a lot about how coral bleaching is damaging coral ecosystems. But another insidious process, ocean acidification, is also threatening reef survival.
Ocean acidification particularly affects shallow waters, and the subarctic Pacific region is particularly vulnerable.
Coral reefs cover less than 0.5% of Earth’s surface, but house an estimated 25% of all marine species. Due to ocean acidification and other threats, these incredibly diverse “underwater rainforests” are among the most threatened ecosystems on the planet.
A chemical reaction
Ocean acidification involves a decrease in the pH of seawater as it absorbs carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere.
Each year, humans emit 35 billion tonnes of CO₂ through activities such as burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.
Oceans absorb up to 30% of atmospheric CO₂, setting off a chemical reaction in which concentrations of carbonate ions fall, and hydrogen ion concentrations increase. That change makes the seawater more acidic.
Ocean acidification is also a problem for the fishes. Many studies have revealed elevated CO₂ can disrupt their sense of smell, vision and hearing. It can also impair survival traits, such as a fish’s ability to learn, avoid predators, and select suitable habitat.
However, ocean acidification does not affect all marine species in the same way, and the effects can vary over the organism’s lifetime. So, more research to predict the future winners and losers is crucial.
This can be done by identifying inherited traits that can increase an organism’s survival and reproductive success under more acidic conditions. Winner populations may start to adapt, while loser populations should be targets for conservation and management.
One such winner may be the epaulette shark, a shallow water reef species endemic to the Great Barrier Reef. Research suggests simulated ocean acidification conditions do not impact early growth, development, and survival of embryos and neonates, nor do they affect foraging behaviours or metabolic performance of adults.
But ocean acidification is also likely to create losers on the Great Barrier Reef. For example, researchers studying the orange clownfish – a species made famous by Disney’s animated Nemo character – found they suffered multiple sensory impairments under simulated ocean acidification conditions. These ranged from difficulties smelling and hearing their way home, to distinguishing friend from foe.
It’s not too late
More than half a billion people depend on coral reefs for food, income, and protection from storms and coastal erosion. Reefs provide jobs – such as in tourism and fishing – and places for recreation. Globally, coral reefs represent an industry worth US$11.9 trillion per year. And importantly, they’re a place of deep cultural and spiritual connection for Indigenous people around the world.
Cutting greenhouse gas emissions must become a global mission. COVID-19 has slowed our movements across the planet, showing it’s possible to radically slash our production of CO₂. If the world meets the most ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement and keeps global temperature increases below 1.5℃, the Pacific will experience far less severe decreases in oceanic pH.
We will, however, have to curb emissions by a lot more – 45% over the next decade – to keep global warming below 1.5℃. This would give some hope that coral reefs in the Pacific, and worldwide, are not completely lost.
Clearly, the decisions we make today will affect what our oceans look like tomorrow.
Killer whales are icons of the northeastern Pacific Ocean. They are intimately associated with the region’s natural history and First Nations communities. They are apex predators, with females living as long as 100 years old, and recognized a sentinels of ecosystem health — and some populations are currently threatened with extinction.
There are three major types of killer whales in the region: the “resident” populations that feed mainly on salmon, the “transients” that prey on other marine mammals like seals and sea lions, and the “offshores” that transit along the continental shelf, eating fish and sharks.
In the 1990s, an abrupt decline in the fish-eating southern resident population dropped to 75 whales from 98, prompting both Canada and the United States to list them as endangered.
Since then, southern resident killer whales, whose range extends from the waters off the southeast Alaska and the coast of British Columbia to California, have not recovered — only 74 remain today. Because killer whale strandings are rare, scientists have been uncertain about the causes of killer whale mortality and how additional deaths might be prevented in the future.
As a pathologist and wildlife veterinarian, and with the help of countless biologists and veterinarians, we have carried out in-depth investigations into why killer whales in this region strand and died. If we don’t know what is causing killer whale deaths, we are not able to prevent the ones that are human-caused.
We can do better
Human activities have been implicated in the decline and lack of recovery of the southern resident killer whale population, including ship noise and strikes, contaminants, reduced prey abundance and past capture of these animals for aquariums.
To figure out why these killer whales are dying — and what it means for the health of individual animals and the population as a whole — we reviewed the post-mortem records of 53 animals that became stranded in the eastern Pacific Ocean and Hawaii between 2004 and 2013. We identified the cause of death in 22 animals, and gained important insight from nine other animals where the cause of death could not be determined.
Human-caused injuries were found in nearly every age group of whales, including adults, sub-adults and calves. Some had ingested fishing hooks, but evidence of blunt-force trauma, consistent with ship and propeller strikes, was more common.
This is the first study to document the lesions and forensic evidence of lethal trauma from ship and propeller strikes.
In recent years governments have focused on limiting vessel noise and disturbance. This study reinforces the need for this, showing that in addition to noise and disturbance, vessel strikes are an important cause of death in killer whales.
In this study, we found that longer and therefore older animals tend to have thicker blubber. Our study also found that those animals that died from blunt-force trauma had a better body condition — they were in good health before death. Those that died from infections or nutritional causes were more likely to be in worse body condition.
This new body condition index can help scientists better understand the health of killer whales, and gives us a tool to evaluate their health regardless of their age, reproductive status and health condition.
Our team, working with numerous collaborators including the National Marine Mammal Foundation, is building a health database of the killer whales living in the northeastern Pacific Ocean so that their health can be tracked over time. This centralized database will let stranding response programs, regional and national government agencies and First Nations communities collaborate with field biologists, research scientists and veterinarians.
Ultimately, the information about the health of these killer whales must be conveyed to the public and policy-makers to ensure that the appropriate legislation is enacted to reverse the downward trend in the health and survival of these killer whales. We should now be able to assess future efforts and gain a better understanding of the impact of ongoing human activities, such as fishing, boating and shipping.
The Japanese government recently announced plans to release into the sea more than 1 million tonnes of radioactive water from the severely damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
The move has sparked global outrage, including from UN Special Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak who recently wrote,
I urge the Japanese government to think twice about its legacy: as a true champion of human rights and the environment, or not.
Alongside our Nobel Peace Prize-winning work promoting nuclear disarmament, we have worked for decades to minimise the health harms of nuclear technology, including site visits to Fukushima since 2011. We’ve concluded Japan’s plan is unsafe, and not based on evidence.
Japan isn’t the only country with a nuclear waste problem. The Australian government wants to send nuclear waste to a site in regional South Australia — a risky plan that has been widely criticised.
Contaminated water in leaking tanks
In 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami resulted in the meltdown of four large nuclear reactors, and extensive damage to the reactor containment structures and the buildings which house them.
Water must be poured on top of the damaged reactors to keep them cool, but in the process, it becomes highly contaminated. Every day, 170 tonnes of highly contaminated water are added to storage on site.
As of last month, this totalled 1.23 million tonnes. Currently, this water is stored in more than 1,000 tanks, many hastily and poorly constructed, with a history of leaks.
How does radiation harm marine life?
If radioactive material leaks into the sea, ocean currents can disperse it widely. The radioactivity from Fukushima has already caused widespread contamination of fish caught off the coast, and was even detected in tuna caught off California.
Ionising radiation harms all organisms, causing genetic damage, developmental abnormalities, tumours and reduced fertility and fitness. For tens of kilometres along the coast from the damaged nuclear plant, the diversity and number of organisms have been depleted.
Of particular concern are long-lived radioisotopes (unstable chemical elements) and those which concentrate up the food chain, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90. This can lead to fish being thousands of times more radioactive than the water they swim in.
Failing attempts to de-contaminate the water
In recent years, a water purification system — known as advanced liquid processing — has been used to treat the contaminated water accumulating in Fukushima to try to reduce the 62 most important contaminating radioisotopes.
But it hasn’t been very effective. To date, 72% of the treated water exceeds the regulatory standards. Some treated water has been shown to be almost 20,000 times higher than what’s allowed.
One important radioisotope not removed in this process is tritium — a radioactive form of hydrogen with a half-life of 12.3 years. This means it takes 12.3 years for half of the radioisotope to decay.
Tritium is a carcinogenic byproduct of nuclear reactors and reprocessing plants, and is routinely released both into the water and air.
The Japanese government and the reactor operator plan to meet regulatory limits for tritium by diluting contaminated water. But this does not reduce the overall amount of radioactivity released into the environment.
How should the water be stored?
The Japanese Citizens Commission for Nuclear Energy is an independent organisation of engineers and researchers. It says once water is treated to reduce all significant isotopes other than tritium, it should be stored in 10,000-tonne tanks on land.
If the water was stored for 120 years, tritium levels would decay to less than 1,000th of the starting amount, and levels of other radioisotopes would also reduce. This is a relatively short and manageable period of time, in terms of nuclear waste.
Then, the water could be safely released into the ocean.
Nuclear waste storage in Australia
Australians currently face our own nuclear waste problems, stemming from our nuclear reactors and rapidly expanding nuclear medicine export business, which produces radioisotopes for medical diagnosis, some treatments, scientific and industrial purposes.
This is what happens at our national nuclear facility at Lucas Heights in Sydney. The vast majority of Australia’s nuclear waste is stored on-site in a dedicated facility, managed by those with the best expertise, and monitored 24/7 by the Australian Federal Police.
But the Australian government plans to change this. It wants to transport and temporarily store nuclear waste at a facility at Kimba, in regional South Australia, for an indeterminate period. We believe the Kimba plan involves unnecessary multiple handling, and shifts the nuclear waste problem onto future generations.
The infrastructure, staff and expertise to manage and monitor radioactive materials in Lucas Heights were developed over decades, with all the resources and emergency services of Australia’s largest city. These capacities cannot be quickly or easily replicated in the remote rural location of Kimba. What’s more, transporting the waste raises the risk of theft and accident.
And in recent months, the CEO of regulator ARPANSA told a senate inquiry there is capacity to store nuclear waste at Lucas Heights for several more decades. This means there’s ample time to properly plan final disposal of the waste.
The Conversation contacted Resources Minister Keith Pitt who insisted the Kimba site will consolidate waste from more than 100 places into a “safe, purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility”. He said a separate, permanent disposal facility will be established for intermediate level waste in a few decades’ time.
Pitt said the government continues to seek involvement of Traditional Owners. He also said the Kimba community voted in favour of the plan. However, the voting process was criticised on a number of grounds, including that it excluded landowners living relatively close to the site, and entirely excluded Barngarla people.
Kicking the can down the road
Both Australia and Japan should look to nations such as Finland, which deals with nuclear waste more responsibly and has studied potential sites for decades. It plans to spend 3.5 billion euros (A$5.8 billion) on a deep geological disposal site.
Intermediate level nuclear waste like that planned to be moved to Kimba contains extremely hazardous materials that must be strictly isolated from people and the environment for at least 10,000 years.
We should take the time needed for an open, inclusive and evidence-based planning process, rather than a quick fix that avoidably contaminates our shared environment and creates more problems than it solves.
It only kicks the can down the road for future generations, and does not constitute responsible radioactive waste management.
The following are additional comments provided by Resources Minister Keith Pitt in response to issues raised in this article (comments added after publication):
(The Kimba plan) will consolidate waste into a single, safe, purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility. It is international best practice and good common sense to do this.
Key indicators which showed the broad community support in Kimba included 62 per cent support in the local community ballot, and 100 per cent support from direct neighbours to the proposed site.
In assessing community support, the government also considered submissions received from across the country and the results of Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation’s own vote.
The vast majority of Australia’s radioactive waste stream is associated with nuclear medicine production that, on average, two in three Australians will benefit from during their lifetime.
The facility will create a new, safe industry for the Kimba community, including 45 jobs in security, operations, administration and environmental monitoring.
Tilman Ruff, Associate Professor, Education and Learning Unit, Nossal Institute for Global Health, School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne and Margaret Beavis, Tutor Principles of Clinical Practice Melbourne Medical School
The storm of climate change is approaching the Pacific Islands. Its likely impact has been hugely amplified by decades of global inertia and the islands’ growing dependency on developed countries.
The background to this situation is straightforward. For a long time, richer developed countries have been underwriting the costs of climate change in poorer developing countries, leaving them reliant on Western solutions to their climate-related issues.
But as rising sea water continues to encroach on these low-lying Pacific islands, inundating infrastructure and even cemeteries, it’s clear almost every externally sponsored attempt at climate adaptation has failed here.
And as the costs of adaptation in richer countries escalate, this funding support to developing countries will likely taper out in future.
We’ve researched climate change adaptation in the Pacific for more than 50 years. We argue this trend is not merely unsustainable, but also dangerous. Pacific Island nations must start drawing from traditional knowledge to adapt to climate change, rather than continue to rely on foreign funds.
Western solutions don’t always work
On a global scale, climate adaptation strategies have largely been either ineffective or unsustainable.
This is especially the case in non-Western contexts, where Western science continues to be privileged. In the Pacific Islands, this is often because these Western strategies invariably subordinate, even ignore, funding recipients’ culturally grounded worldviews.
A good example is the desire of foreign donors to build hard structures, such as sea walls, to protect eroding coasts. This is the preferred strategy in richer nations.
However it does not embrace nature-based solutions such as replanting coastal mangroves, which can be more readily sustained in poorer contexts.
A likely scenario
The availability of external financial assistance means developing countries have become more dependent on their richer counterparts for climate change adaptation.
For example, between 2016 and 2019, Australia provided A$300 million to help Pacific Island nations adapt to climate change, committing to a further $500 million to 2025. This left little need or incentive for these countries to fund their own adaptation needs.
But imagine this climate change scenario. Ten years from now, unprecedented rainfall is dumped on Australia’s east coast over a prolonged period. Several cities become flooded and remain so for weeks.
In the aftermath, the Australian government scrambles to make recently flooded areas liveable once more. They build a series of massive coastal dikes – structures to prevent the rising sea from flooding populated areas.
The cost is exorbitant and unanticipated – like COVID-19 – so the government will look for ways to shuffle money around. This may well include reducing financial aid for climate change adaptation in poorer countries.
Plunging international aid
Economic modelling shows nations will incur massive costs this century to adapt to climate change within their own borders. So it’s almost inevitable wealthier countries will rethink the extent of their assistance to the developing world.
In fact, even before the pandemic, Australia’s foreign aid budget was projected to decrease in real terms by nearly 12% from 2020 to 2023.
These factors do not bode well for developing countries, which will be facing higher climate adaptation costs and dwindling foreign aid assistance.
Leaders of developing countries should anticipate this situation now, and reverse their growing dependence on outside assistance.
For example, rural communities in regions like the Pacific Islands could revive their use of “cashless adaptation”. This means developing ways of adapting livelihoods to climate change that cost nothing.
These methods include the intentional planting of surplus crops, the use of traditional methods of food preservation and water storage, the use of free locally-available materials and labour for constructing sea defences. And it perhaps even includes the recognition that living along coastal fringes exposes you unnecessarily to weather-related change.
Prior to globalisation, this is how it was for decades, even centuries, in places like the rural Pacific islands. Then, adaptation to a changing environment was sustained by cooperation with one another and the use of freely available materials, not with cash.
Researchers have also argued for such “looking forward to the past” strategies regarding Hawaii’s climate adaptation.
And research from last year in Fiji showed more rural communities still have and use a stock of traditional methods for anticipating and withstanding disasters, such as flood and drought.
We can take this argument further. Perhaps it’s time for Pacific Island nations to rediscover traditional medicines, at least for primary health care, to supplement western medicine.
Greater production and consumption of locally grown foods, over imported foods, is also an important and valuable transformation.
The future of the developing world
The need for nations to adapt to unanticipated phenomena like climate change and COVID-19 encourages de-globalisation – including that countries depend less on cross-border aid and economic activity. So it seems inevitable that under current global circumstances, smaller economies will be forced to become more efficient and self-reliant.
Restoring traditional adaptation strategies would not only drive effective and sustainable climate change adaptation, but also would restore residents’ beliefs in their own time-honoured ways of coping with environmental shocks.
This not only means finding ways to reduce costs through cashless adaptation, but also to explore radical ways of reducing dependency and increasing autonomy. An appeal to past practice, and traditional ways of coping, is well worth considering.
Tropical cyclones are among the most destructive weather systems on Earth, and the Southwest Pacific region is very exposed and vulnerable to these extreme events.
Our latest research, published today in Scientific Reports, presents a new way of predicting the number of tropical cyclones up to four months ahead of the cyclone season, with outlooks tailored for individual island nations and territories.
Tropical cyclones produce extreme winds, large waves and storm surges, intense rainfall and flooding — and account for almost three in four natural disasters across the Southwest Pacific region.
Currently, Southwest Pacific forecasting agencies release a regional tropical cyclone outlook in October, one month ahead of the official start of the cyclone season in November. Our new model offers a long-range warning, issued monthly from July, to give local authorities more time to prepare.
Most importantly, this improvement on existing extreme weather warning systems may save more lives and mitigate damage by providing information up to four months ahead of the cyclone season.
In 2016, Cyclone Winston, a record-breaking severe category 5 event, was the strongest cyclone to make landfall across Fiji. It killed 44 people, injured 130 and seriously damaged around 40,000 homes. Damages totalled US$1.4 billion — making it the costliest cyclone in Southwest Pacific history.
Capturing changes in all of these climate influences simultaneously is key to producing more accurate tropical cyclone outlooks. Our new tool, the Long-Range Tropical Cyclone Outlook for the Southwest Pacific (TCO-SP), will assist forecasters and help local authorities to prepare for the coming season’s cyclone activity.
Our research adds to the existing methods used by those agencies, but also considers other climate drivers known to influence tropical cyclone activity. In total, 12 separate outlooks are produced for individual nations and territories including Fiji, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Tonga.
Our long-range outlook is a statistical model, trained on historical relationships between ocean-atmosphere processes and the number of tropical cyclones per season. For each target location, hundreds of unique model combinations are tested. The one that performs best in capturing historical tropical cyclone counts is selected to make the prediction for the coming season.
At the start of each monthly outlook, the model retrains itself, taking the most recent changes in ocean temperature and atmospheric variability and attributes of tropical cyclones from the previous season into account.
Both deterministic (tropical cyclone numbers) and probabilistic (the chance of below, normal or above average tropical cyclone activity) outlooks are updated every month between July and January and are freely available.
Our study, published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, provides the first mega-assessment on the progress of community-based adaptation in four Pacific Island countries: the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati and Vanuatu.
Pacific Island nation communities have always been resilient, surviving on islands in the middle of oceans for more than 3,000 years. We can learn a lot from their adaptation methods, but climate change is an unprecedented challenge.
Effective adaptation is critical for ensuring Pacific Islanders continue living fulfilling lives in their homelands. For Australia’s part, we must ensure we’re supporting their diverse abilities and aspirations.
Expert commentary from 2019 highlighted that many adaptation responses in the Pacific have been short-sighted and, at times, even inadequate. The remains of failed seawalls, for example, litter the shorelines of many island countries, yet remain a popular adaptive solution. We cannot afford another few decades of this.
International climate aid commitments from rich western countries barely scratch the surface of what’s needed, yet it’s likely funding will dry up for regions like the Pacific as governments scramble together money for their own countries’ escalating adaptation costs.
This includes Australia, that has long been, and continues to be, the leading donor to the region. Our government contributed about 40% of total aid between 2011 and 2017 and yet refuses to take meaningful action on climate change.
Understanding what successful adaptation should look like in developing island states is urgent to ensure existing funding creates the best outcomes.
Our findings are based on community perspectives. We documented what factors lead to success and failure and what “best practice” might really look like.
We asked locals about the appropriateness, effectiveness, equity, impact and sustainability of the adaptation initiatives, and used this feedback to determine their success.
The results were mixed. While our success stories illustrate what “best practice” involves, issues still emerged.
Our top two success stories centred on community efforts to protect local marine ecosystems in the Federated States of Micronesia and Vanuatu. Nearby communities rely on these ecosystems for food, income and for supporting cultural practice.
One initiative focused on establishing a marine park with protected areas while the other involved training in crown-of-thorns starfish control. As one person told us:
we think it’s great […] we see the results and know it’s our responsibility.
Initiatives that focus on both the community and the ecosystem support self-sufficiency, so the community can maintain the initiatives even after external bodies leave and funding ceases.
In these two instances, the “community” was expanded to the whole island and to anyone who utilised local ecosystems, such as fishers and tourism operators.
Through this, benefits were accessible to all: “all men, all women, all pikinini [children],” we were told.
Standing the test of time
In Vanuatu, the locals deemed two initiatives on raising climate change awareness as successful, with new scientific knowledge complementing traditional knowledge.
And in the Federated States of Micronesia, locals rated two initiatives on providing tanks for water security highly. This initiative addressed the communities’ primary concerns around clean water, but also had impact beyond merely climate-related vulnerabilities.
This was a relatively simple solution that also improved financial security and minimised pollution because people no longer needed to travel to other islands to buy bottled water.
But even among success stories, standing the test of time was a challenge.
For example, while these water security initiatives boosted short-term coping capacities, they weren’t flexible for coping with likely future changes in drought severity and duration.
Adaptation needs better future planning, especially by those who understand local processes best: the community.
Listening to locals
For an adaptation initiative to be successful, our research found it must include:
local approval and ownership
shared access and benefit for community members
integration of local context and livelihoods
big picture thinking and forward planning.
To achieve these, practitioners and researchers need to rethink community-based adaptation as more than being simply “based” in communities where ideas are imposed on them, but rather as something they wholly lead.
Communities must acknowledge and build on their strengths and traditional values, and drive their own adaptation agendas – even if this means questioning well-intentioned foreign agencies.
Being good neighbours
Pacific Islands are not passive, helpless victims, but they’ll still need help to deal with climate change.
Pacific Island leaders need more than kind words from Australian leaders.
Scientific research doesn’t usually mean being strapped in a harness by the open paratroop doors of a Vietnam-war-era Hercules plane. But that’s the situation I found myself in several years ago, the result of which has just been published in the journal Marine Biodiversity.
As part of the Ocean Cleanup’s Aerial Expedition, I was coordinating a visual survey team assessing the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
When the aircraft’s doors opened in front of me over the Pacific Ocean for the first time, my heart jumped into my throat. Not because I was looking 400m straight down to the wild sea below as it passed at 260km per hour, but because of what I saw.
This was one of the most remote regions of the Pacific Ocean, and the amount of floating plastic nets, ropes, containers and who-knows-what below was mind-boggling.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is said to be the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world. It is located between Hawaii and California, where huge ocean currents meet to form the North Pacific subtropical gyre. An estimated 80,000 tonnes of plastic are floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Our overall project was overseen and led by The Ocean Cleanup’s founder Boyan Slat and then-chief scientist Julia Reisser. We conducted two visual survey flights, each taking an entire day to travel from San Francisco’s Moffett Airfield, survey for around two hours, and travel home. Along with our visual observations, the aircraft was fitted with a range of sensors, including a short-wave infrared imager, a Lidar system (which uses the pulse from lasers to map objects on land or at sea), and a high-resolution camera.
Both visual and technical surveys found whales and dolphins, including sperm and beaked whales and their young calves. This is the first direct evidence of whales and dolphins in the heart of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Plastics in the ocean are a growing problem for marine life. Many species can mistake plastics for food, consume them accidentally along with their prey or simply eat fish that have themselves eaten plastic.
Both beaked and sperm whales have been recently found with heavy plastic loads in their stomachs. In the Philippines, a dying beaked whale was found with 40kg of plastic in its stomach, and in Indonesia, a dead sperm whale washed ashore with 115 drinking cups, 25 plastic bags, plastic bottles, two flip-flops, and more than 1,000 pieces of string in its stomach.
The danger of ghost nets
The most common debris we were able to identify by eye was discarded or lost fishing nets, often called “ghost nets”. Ghost nets can drift in the ocean for years, trapping animals and causing injuries, starvation and death.
During our observation we saw young calves with their mothers. Calves are especially vulnerable to becoming trapped. With the wide range of ocean plastics in the garbage patch, it is highly likely animals in the area ingest and become tangled in it.
It’s believed the amount of plastics in the ocean could triple over the next decade. It is clear the problem of plastic pollution has no political or geographic boundaries.
The most devastating effects fall on communities in poverty. New research shows the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly growing, posing a greater threat to wildlife. It reinforces the global movement to reduce, recycle and remove plastics from the environment.
But to really tackle this problem we need creative solutions at every level of society, from communities to industries to governments and international organisations.
To take one possibility, what if we invested in fast-growing, sustainably cultivated bamboo to replace millions of single-use plastics? It could be produced by the very countries most affected by this crisis: poorer and developing nations.
Tropical tuna are one of the few wild animals we still hunt in large numbers, but finding them in the vast Pacific ocean can be tremendously difficult. However, fishers have long known that tuna are attracted to, and will aggregate around, floating objects such as logs.
In the past, people used bamboo rafts to attract tuna, fishing them while they were gathered underneath. Today, the modern equivalent – called fish aggregating devices, or FADs – usually contain high-tech equipment that tell fishers where they are and how many fish have accumulated nearby.
It’s estimated that between 30,000 and 65,000 man-made FADs are deployed annually and drift through the Western and Central Pacific Ocean to be fished on by industrial fishers. Pacific island countries are reporting a growing number of FADs washing up on their beaches, damaging coral reefs and potentially altering the distribution of tuna.
Our research in two papers, one of which was published today in Scientific Reports, looks for the first time at where ocean currents take these FADs and where they wash up on coastlines in the Pacific.
Attracting fish and funds
We do not fully understand why some fish and other marine creatures aggregate around floating objects, but they are a source of attraction for many species. FADs are commonly made of a raft with 30-80m of old ropes or nets hanging below. Modern FADs are attached to high-tech buoys with solar-powered electronics.
The buoys record a FAD’s position as it drifts slowly across the Pacific, scanning the water below to measure tuna numbers with echo-sounders and transmitting this valuable information to fishing vessels by satellite.
Throughout their lifetimes FADs may be exchanged between vessels, recovered and redeployed, or fished and simply left to drift with their buoy to further aggregate tuna. Fishers may then abandon them and remotely deactivate the buoys’ satellite transmission when the FAD leaves the fishing area.
Fishing licence fees can provide up to 98% of government revenue for some Pacific Island countries and territories. These countries balance the need to sustainably manage and harvest one of the only renewable resources they have, while often having a limited capacity to fish at an industrial scale themselves.
FADs help stabilise catch rates and make fishing fleets more profitable, which in turn generate revenue for these nations.
The abandonment or loss of FADs adds to the growing mass of marine debris floating in the ocean, and they increasingly damage coral as they are dragged and get caught on reefs.
Perhaps most importantly, we don’t know how the distribution of FADs affects fishing effort in the region. Given that each fleet and fishing company has their own strategy for using FADs, understanding how the total number of FADs drifting in one area increases the catch of tuna is crucial for sustainably managing these valuable species.
Where do FADs end up?
Our research, published in Environmental Research Communications and Scientific Reports, used a regional FAD tracking program and fishing data submitted by Pacific countries, in combination with numerical ocean models and simulations of virtual FADs, to work out how FADs travel on ocean currents during and after their use.
In general, FADs are first deployed by fishers in the eastern and central Pacific. They then drift west with the prevailing currents into the core industrial tropical tuna fishing zones along the equator.
We found equatorial countries such as Kiribati have a high number of FADs moving through their waters, with a significant amount washing up on their shores. Our research showed these high numbers are primarily due to the locations in which FADs are deployed by fishing companies.
In contrast, Tuvalu, which is situated on the edge of the equatorial current divergence zone, also sees a high density of FADs and beaching. But this appears to be an area that generally aggregates FADs regardless of where they are deployed.
Unsurprisingly, many FADs end up beaching in countries at the western edge of the core fishing grounds, having drifted from different areas of the Pacific as far away as Ecuador. This concentration in the west means reefs along the edge of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea are particularly vulnerable, with currents apparently forcing FADs towards these coasts more than other countries in the region.
Overall, our studies estimate that between 1,500 and 2,200 FADs drifting through the Western and Central Pacific Ocean wash up on beaches each year. This is likely to be an underestimate, as the tracking devices on many FADs are remotely deactivated as they leave fishing zones.
Using computer simulations, we also found that a significant number of FADs are deployed in the eastern Pacific Ocean, left to drift so they have time to aggregate tuna, and subsequently fished on in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. This complicates matters as the eastern Pacific is managed by an entirely different fishery Commission with its own set of fisheries management strategies and programmes.
Growing human populations and climate change are increasing pressure on small island nations. FAD fishing is very important to their economic and food security, allowing access to the wealth of the ocean’s abundance.
We need to safeguard these resources, with effective management around the number and location of FAD deployments, more research on their impact on tuna and bycatch populations, the use of biodegradable FADs, or effective recovery programs to remove old FADs from the ocean at the end of their slow journeys across the Pacific.
The Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tuvalu this week has ended in open division over climate change. Australia ensured its official communique watered down commitments to respond to climate change, gaining a hollow victory.
Traditionally, communiques capture the consensus reached at the meeting. In this case, the division on display between Australia and the Pacific meant the only commitment is to commission yet another report into what action needs to be taken.
The cost of Australia’s victory is likely to be great, as it questions the sincerity of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s commitment to “step up” engagement in the Pacific.
Australia’s stance on climate change has become untenable in the Pacific. The inability to meet Pacific Island expectations will erode Australia’s influence and leadership credentials in the region, and provide opportunities for other countries to grow influence in the region.
An unprecedented show of dissent
When Morrison arrived in Tuvalu, he was met with an uncompromising mood. In fact, the text of an official communique was only finished after 12 hours of pointed negotiations.
While the “need for urgent, immediate actions on the threats and challenges of climate change”, is acknowledged, the Pacific was looking for action, not words.
What’s more, the document reaffirmed that “strong political leadership to advance climate change action” was needed, but leadership from Australia was sorely missing. It led Tuvaluan Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga to note:
I think we can say we should’ve done more work for our people.
Presumably, he would have hoped Australia could be convinced to take more climate action.
In an unprecedented show of dissent, smaller Pacific Island countries produced the alternative Kainaki II Declaration. It captures the mood of the Pacific in relation to the existential threat posed by climate change, and the need to act decisively now to ensure their survival.
And it details the commitments needed to effectively address the threat of climate change. It’s clear nothing short of transformational change is needed to ensure their survival, and there is rising frustration in Australia’s repeated delays to take effective action.
Australia hasn’t endorsed the alternative declaration and Canberra has signalled once and for all that compromise on climate change is not possible. This is not what Pacific leaders hoped for and will come at a diplomatic cost to Australia.
Conflict had already begun brewing in the lead up to the Pacific Islands Forum. The Pacific Islands Development Forum – the brainchild of the Fijian government, which sought a forum to engage with Pacific Island Nations without the influence of Australia and New Zealand – released the the Nadi Bay Declaration in July this year.
This declaration called on coal producing countries like Australia to cease all production within a decade.
But it’s clear Canberra believes compromise of this sort on climate change would undermine Australia’s economic growth and this is the key stumbling block to Australia answering its Pacific critics with action.
As Sopoaga said to Morrison:
You are concerned about saving your economy in Australia […] I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu.
And a day before the meeting, Canberra announced half a billion dollars to tackle climate change in the region. But it received a lukewarm reception from the Pacific.
The message is clear: Canberra cannot buy off the Pacific. In part, this is because Pacific Island countries have new options, especially from China, which has offered Pacific island countries concessional loans.
As tension built at the Pacific Island Forum meeting, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters argued there was a double standard with respect to the treatment of China on climate change.
China is the world’s largest emitter of climate change gasses, but if there is a double standard it’s of Australia’s making.
Australia purports to be part of the Pacific family that can speak and act to protect the interests of Pacific Island countries in the face of China’s “insidious” attempts to gain influence through “debt trap” diplomacy. This is where unsustainable loans are offered with the aim of gaining political advantage.
But countering Chinese influence in the Pacific is Australia’s prime security interest, and is a secondary issue for the Pacific.
But unlike Australia, China has never claimed the moral high ground and provides an attractive alternative partner, so it will likely gain ground in the battle for influence in the Pacific.
For the Pacific Island Forum itself, open dissent is a very un-Pacific outcome. Open dissent highlights the strains in the region’s premier intergovernmental organisation.
Australia and (to a lesser extent) New Zealand’s dominance has often been a source of criticism, but growing confidence among Pacific leaders has changed diplomatic dynamics forever.
This new pacific diplomacy has led Pacific leaders to more steadfastly identify their security interests. And for them, the need to respond to climate change is non-negotiable.
If winning the geopolitical contest with China in Pacific is Canberra’s priority, then far greater creativity will be needed as meeting the Pacific half way on climate change is a prerequisite for success.
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