Tuna-Tagging Expedition Sets Sail Despite COVID-19 Challenges - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Giulia Anderson

Originally from Napo'opo'o, Giulia Anderson is now a fisheries molecular geneticist with the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. After moving to study in Fiji at the University of the South Pacific in 2016, she completed her PhD in 2019 which focused on understanding the genetic structure of three tuna species in the western and central Pacific Ocean by using cutting-edge sequencing and analysis technologies.

Scientists across the world continue to pursue essential research to the best of current abilities, even as they must also navigate the new COVID-19 landscape. I am part of one of those research efforts: a tuna-tagging cruise that departed from Hawaii last weekend with a track through Kiribati waters.

We left port after overcoming a mountain of logistical odds, under the driving belief that the work of promoting sustainable fisheries and ocean health is worth taking on the seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Half of the world’s tuna catch comes from the Western and Central Pacific, providing a critical source of protein and export revenue for Pacific island nations and others.

The excitement gets a bit more personal, as well. As a young marine scientist, I started a position with the Secretariat of the Pacific Community only a matter of months ago. The pre-COVID-19 intention was to relocate to SPC’s headquarters in New Caledonia, which was quickly revised to working remotely from Hawaii until travel restrictions lifted.

In true serendipity, I went from designing studies to be conducted on a theoretical cruise to enacting my own research onboard. In a year when productivity is slim at best, somehow planets aligned to give me an opportunity to oversee a project from inception to data interpretation.

For context, I completed my graduate studies in Fiji, and while I was there I met a guy. Ironically, 2020 was going to be “our year” — first adult-paying jobs, getting married in May, moving internationally together, trying to ship OC-1s to New Caledonia because, whatever local canoe makers they might have, Hawaii-designed is no ka oi (the best). We have now been six months stuck in our respective countries, managing a few video calls a week — when Fiji’s internet infrastructure cooperates.

For a young, idealistic marine scientist the significance of this particular research cruise continues to build. COVID-19 limitations have hamstrung most fisheries observer programs, which place third party reporters on fishing vessels to record accurate catch volumes and influence stock management.

However, fishing itself has not stopped. Data collected during the next seven weeks at sea will be some of the only direct observations made for 2020.

Gutsy Lady 4 leaves Kewalo Harbor.
A team of mostly Hawaii-based scientists left Kewalo Harbor on Saturday for a two-month tuna-tagging expedition aboard the Gutsy Lady 4. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The world is laser-focused on bringing the COVID-19 pandemic to a close, but marginalizing all those 2019 fears about climate change, global resource management and human rights does not mean the global threats have gone away.

This year more than ever, it is healthy to recognize and appreciate moments of human creativity and resilience. Although it would be tempting fate to call the cruise a success before we return to port (not a game any sailor wants to play), the fact that we are leaving port at all should count as one of those moments worth celebrating.

As a marine scientist, it is heartwarming to see our ship leaving port as a measure of Pacific-wide dedication to marine stewardship. In order to get to this point, government officials from multiple offices in at least three Pacific countries and numerous national organizations needed to decide against the easy route of saying, “No thanks, we can’t take on another project during a global health crisis.” Exceptional credit goes to the staff of the Pacific Community, the driving organization behind the expedition, who carried momentum through innumerable setbacks and rule changes.

That said, there is another side to consider when leaving land behind for so long. With four generations of family and hanai on four islands, I carry the same cloud of concern as all other community members about COVID-19. Seven weeks is enough time for the local situation to change, change again, and change back to do a loop.

Communication from sea is possible but limited, which can be a curse or a blessing in a time of extreme flux.

Ironically, my own family’s perspective (both those in Hawaii and Fiji) is, “Phew, at least we will know you are safe, bobbing around on the open sea for seven weeks. Can we come with?”

To avoid any potential for COVID-19 transmission to the remote communities of the Pacific the cruise will not make any port calls to Pacific island nations. The crew members, including the scientific team, were in isolation for 14 days prior to departure and have undergone COVID-19 virus testing.

The vessel will return directly to Honolulu on Oct. 5 — 50 days after departure.

The expedition will only sample from the tropical waters of the high seas and the vast Kiribati Exclusive Economic Zone. The cruise will also provide the first opportunity to collect data on tuna sustainability from the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, which was established in 2008.

From 2006 to 2019, SPC has tagged 452,489 tuna and 81,402 tags have been retrieved, generating the most comprehensive data set for tuna management in the world. In addition to monitoring the health of the tuna stocks, the electronic tags inserted into the tuna are also being used to monitor the health of the Pacific Ocean.

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About the Author

Giulia Anderson

Originally from Napo'opo'o, Giulia Anderson is now a fisheries molecular geneticist with the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. After moving to study in Fiji at the University of the South Pacific in 2016, she completed her PhD in 2019 which focused on understanding the genetic structure of three tuna species in the western and central Pacific Ocean by using cutting-edge sequencing and analysis technologies.


Latest Comments (0)

Thanks for an interesting article, and for going ahead with an important environmental study despite the COVID pandemic.  I wish you the best on your voyage and look forward to your results.

JusticePlease · 1 year ago

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