April 2002


Majuro and Kwajalein are where 68% of the population resides and consequently the vast majority of commercial landings are made at those two locations or are shipped there from Arno and six other islands with the fisheries centres.  In 1999 there were no locally-based offshore tuna fishing vessels in the Marshall Islands.  Subsistence fishery landings are scattered throughout the outer islands, but inshore fishing is prohibited in much of Kwajalein due to US military restrictions.

Estimated landings by principal site in 1999 (tonnes)


Offshore Locally-Based

Coastal Commercial




























In addition to the above, about 33,00 tonnes of fish was caught in 1999 by foreign-based offshore tuna vessels.  This catch was not landed in the Marshall Islands, but (a) for purse seine fish, at the canneries in American Samoa or transshipped to other processing facilities in Asia, or (b) for longline fish, mainly in Guam or Japan, or (c) for pole/line fish, in Japan.


Broad objectives

The broad management objectives in the fisheries sector have not been specifically detailed by the government and therefore must be inferred from a number of policy-oriented documents.

  • Marshall Islands Marine Resources Act 1997 has a section titled “Objectives and purposes for fisheries management and development” and specifies the following: (a) establish priorities for the utilisation of the fisheries resources which will provide the greatest overall benefits to the country; (b) ensure the proper conservation of the fishery resource through the prevention of over-fishing and the taking of a precautionary approach toward harvesting when information and data about the fishery resource are lacking; (c) base management practices on sound management principles and the best scientific information available, to be gained through national and international research programmes; (d) minimise, to the extent practicable, fishing gear conflicts among users; and (e) develop the fisheries sector in accordance with the best interests of the country.

  • A national fisheries policy was approved by the Government of the Marshall Islands in November 1977. The “main objectives of the policy” are to: (a) Increase fisheries activities within sustainable limits, (b) Support private sector-led development, and (c) Strengthen the capability of the nation to manage its fisheries resources.

  • Information in the government report titled “Meto2000 Economic Report and Statement of Development Strategies” suggests that maximization of government revenue and protection of food supplies are main objectives in the fisheries sector.

In practice, of the documents cited above, it appears that the Meto2000 paper reflects the actual situation of the broad management objectives in the fisheries sector of the Marshall Islands most accurately. 

Overview of government management strategy

The government management strategy consists of two components:

  • Tuna management: Encourage foreign fishing and port activity and require licences for which the fleets must pay.

  • Coastal resources management: devolve responsibility for resources within five miles of islands to local governments

In another sense, the strategy is to have a semi-autonomous agency responsible for both tuna management and for providing technical assistance to local governments for the management of coastal resources.

Offshore tuna fishery

There is no well-articulated statement of the management system for the offshore tuna fishery.  Unlike many other Pacific Island nations, a plan for the management of tuna has not yet been formulated.  The following is therefore by necessity inferred from recent activities, government documents, and policy statements. 

The offshore tuna fishery in the Marshall Islands is based on three tuna species: Skipjack tuna Katsuwonus pelamis, Yellowfin tuna Thunnus albacares, and Bigeye tuna Thunnus obesus. The three tuna species are also covered under several regional management agreements and are soon to be covered under one international management arrangement. The regional management agreements are:

  • the Harmonized Minimum Terms and Conditions for Foreign Fishing Vessel Access;

  • the Wellington Convention for the Prohibition of Fishing with Long Driftnets in the South Pacific;

  • the Niue Treaty on Cooperation in Fisheries Surveillance and Law Enforcement in the South Pacific Region;

  • the Nauru Agreement Concerning Cooperation in the Management of Fisheries of Common Concern;

  • the Palau Arrangement for the Management of the Western Pacific Purse Seine Fishery; and

  • the FSM Arrangement for Regional Fisheries Access. 

The Marshall Islands is a signatory to the Convention on the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, but the convention is not yet in force, nor have the details of management mechanisms been articulated.

The main management objective in the offshore tuna fisheries is the generation of government income from foreign fishing activity in the Marshall Islands zone.  This objective has been in place for some twenty years now.  A secondary objective is to generate business activity (and some additional government revenue) by encouraging the use of Majuro lagoon as a tuna transshipment point. This objective has been in place since the late 1990s. 

The basic strategy applied to achieve the main objective is the requirement for all foreign fishing vessels in the Marshall Islands zone to have a license and to charge for the license. A related strategy is to participate in regional initiatives in order to achieve some degree of solidarity with neighboring countries on licensing. This is primarily through a regional agreement known as the Harmonized Minimum Terms and Conditions for Foreign Fishing Vessel Access and a regional ban on transshipment at sea.

The strategy for encouraging the use of Majuro lagoon as a tuna transshipment point is to make Majuro as “business-friendly” as possible to prospective vessel operators.  This consists of making legal requirements clear, giving duty-free status to the fishing industry, removal of regulations which impede business, and addressing the legitimate  concerns of vessel operators.   A parallel strategy is the Marshall Islands participation in the regional ban on transshipment at sea. 

With respect to measures, the only major measure in place for generating government income is the requirement for a licence. With a few exceptions there are no technical measures, input controls, output controls, or economic incentives in place.  The exceptions include areas within 12 miles of islands that are closed to foreign fishing, and the regional limit on the numbers of purse seine vessels (currently 205 vessels).  For obtaining economic benefits from the use of Majuro as a transshipment point, other than the regional ban on transshipment at sea, there are no technical measures, input controls, output controls, or economic incentives in place. 

With respect to the performance of the strategies/measures, significant government revenue has been generated. Some indication is given by the situation in 1999. In that year the government received US$4.9 million for the 33,217 tonnes of fish caught by foreign fleets in the Marshall Islands zone. As the value of that fish was recently estimated by the Asian Development Bank to be worth US$50 million, the fees represented a favorable portion of the value of the fish.  In another sense, the access fees are a significant portion of government revenue. In 1998 the access fees were about 25% of the combined total of income tax and import duties.    As for encouraging the use of Majuro as a transshipment point, the strategies/measures seem to have performed well. According to the METO2000 report, the number of transshipments increased 2.5 times between 1998 and 1999.  It should be noted however, that other factors such as changes in oceanographic conditions were also responsible.   

Also with respect to performance, a recent government economic report stated that it would be timely to carry out an assessment of the effectiveness of the fisheries management system in order to minimize costs and maximize benefits.

The responsibility for enforcing management measures lies mainly with the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority (MIMRA). The Marine Resources Act 1997 states: “The Authority shall have primary responsibility for fisheries enforcement, including: (a) monitoring, control and surveillance of all fishing operations within the Fishery Waters; and (b) the enforcement of this Act. (2) The Authority shall, as appropriate, involve participation by relevant Government departments or offices in fisheries enforcement. (3) The Authority may authorize other entities, officials or persons to perform fisheries enforcement functions”. The law also requires that MIMRA coordinates its enforcement activities with the Attorney General.

Domestic stakeholders in the Marshall Islands tuna fisheries were consulted during the formulation of the national fisheries policy.  Individuals often visit MIMRA to discuss their views on important issues.  The Marine Resources Act envisages management to occur through management plans for specific fisheries, but there is no plan in place for the tuna fishery.  When such a plan is formulated, the Director of MIMRA is required to carry out consultations with Local Government Councils, organisations, authorities and persons affected by the fishery plan.

Information for management decisions dealing with tuna is acquired through various means.  Tuna fishing vessels are required to record and submit logbook forms containing position, effort, and catch information to MIMRA. MIMRA also has an active observer programme which collects management-relevant information. This routinely-collected data is processed and analyzed by MIMRA, where it is entered into a database. The data is also forwarded to the Oceanic Fisheries Programme of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community where it is combined with similar information from neighboring countries to provide a regional perspective to Marshall Islands on its tuna resources.   

Coastal fisheries

The coastal fisheries resources of the Marshall Islands include a large variety of species groups, of which the finfish are the most important.   A Forum Fisheries Agency report on the important fisheries resources of the Marshall Islands indicates that the important families of finfish are: Lutjanidae, Lethrinidae, Serranidae, Scaridae, Labridae, Siganidae, Acanthuridae, Carangidae, Muligidae, and Holocentridae.  Important non-finfish coastal resources include giant clams, trochus, octopus, mangrove crabs, lobster, beche de mer, turtles, and seaweeds.  

There are no bilateral or regional management arrangements in force with respect to the species covered by this fisheries management system.  The possible exception is that the giant clams are covered under Schedule 2 of CITES, which requires the approval of government authorities in the country of origin in order to be imported into a CITES signatory country. 

The Marshall Islands’ fisheries policy indicates that the objectives of national government intervention in coastal fisheries are to preserve the resources for the benefit of community food security and for small-scale income earning opportunities, game fishing and tourism. 

The Marine Resources Act 1997 clearly indicates that the responsibility for management of the coastal fisheries is a shared responsibility between MIMRA and local government councils. The Act states “The Authority may take measures for the management and development of local fisheries including in internal waters and within five miles of the baseline from which the territorial sea of any atoll or island is measured. (2) A Local Government Council may take measures for the management and development of local fisheries in its internal waters and within its waters up to five miles seaward of the baseline from which the territorial sea is measured, in accordance with this Act”. 

The actual situation is somewhat different as the national government is moving away from direct involvement in the management of coastal resources.  The MIMRA Annual Report dated March 2000 states: “MIMRA has neither the capacity nor resources to manage outer islands fisheries.  Furthermore MIMRA’s intrusion into customary management arrangements disrupted long-standing customary management practices”. The December 2000 Economic Report and Statement of Development Strategies indicates that MIMRA has delegated responsibility for management of coastal fisheries within 5 miles of islands to local governments and is assisting them to develop fishery ordinances.   The only local government to have produced an ordinance is Majuro.  

In another sense, the strategy for the management of coastal fisheries is to formulate formal plans for important fisheries in the Marshall Islands. The Marine Resources Act states “The Authority may authorise a fishery as a designated fishery where, having regard to scientific, economic, cultural, environmental and other relevant considerations, it is determined that the fishery: (a) is important to the national interest; and (b) requires management and development measures for effective conservation and optimum utilisation. (2) The Director shall prepare, keep under review and be responsible for the implementation of a plan for the management and development of each designated fishery in the fishery waters”.  In practice, this has not occurred – there are presently no plans in place. 

With respect to specific measures, the Act permits a wide variety of measures, including technical measures, input controls, and output controls.  The only specific measures stipulated in the Act are: a ban on the use of poisons/explosives, various restrictions on the taking of turtles, protection of cultured sponges, seasonal/size limitations on the taking of black-lip pearl oyster, restricting the taking of trochus to specific harvesting periods, and restrictions on the introduction of live fish.

At the local level, with Majuro the only local government to have produced an ordinance, and with no details available on that ordinance, few comments can be made.  In addition to the local government councils, there is also a traditional tenure system that is involved with coastal resources management using customary practices. The system which involves both land and marine components, has three levels: rights of paramount chiefs (about 10 in the Marshall Islands), rights of the heads of the matrilineal groupings, and the rights of the eldest son of a land owner.  The “strategy” in this system is for the rights holders to have various forms of control over land and adjacent water which is less than waist deep. Deeper lagoon areas are shared by the entire community.  In the areas under the tenure, various restrictions apply, with the most important one being the ability to restrict the activities of outsiders.    

It is difficult to judge the performance of the management measures.  In the islands away from the urban areas of Majuro and Kwajalein, any preservation of coastal fishery resources may have more to do with the flow of population to the urban centres (and subsequent reduction of fishing effort) than management interventions. In any case, there is little information available on the condition of coastal fisheries in the Marshall Islands - a report on fisheries in the Marshall Islands by the Forum Fisheries Agency in the early 1990s indicated that no stock assessment reports could be found in on coastal fisheries resources. An assessment of the performance of coastal fisheries management measures is therefore not possible.  Intuitively, the inshore resources near urban areas show signs of depletion, but the pelagic resources and most fisheries resources located away from urban area are in relatively in good condition. The exception to this is the valuable benthic invertebrates (e.g. giant clams, beche de mer).   It is difficult to relate the favorable conditions to management, but conversely the lack of effective management appears responsible for the depletion close to urban areas.  

The responsibility for enforcing coastal management measures lies with the local government councils. Under the Act, MIMRA is legally competent to enforce measures but as they are in the processing of devolving authority to local governments, their direct involvement in enforcement at this point is minimal. Enforcement of the traditional management measures is by the traditional authorities at the location concerned.  It is interesting to note that there are customary beliefs that deities would harm people who disregard traditional management rules.

The degree of direct stakeholder input into the management decisions at the local level can vary considerably between communities. In general, the communities are small enough so that people involved in fisheries are able to express their views to the leaders involved in decision-making.   

Most information for traditional management is acquired by direct observation by local residents of the abundance of the species concerned.   Fisheries statistical systems have been set up for the coastal fisheries in the Marshall Islands (e.g. by FAO/UNDP in the late 1980s) but they are no longer functioning.  Export records are sometimes used for management purposes (e.g. the trochus fishery).  As mentioned above, no stock assessment reports on inshore resources could be found by a Forum Fisheries Agency project1.   


Marshall Islands Marine Resources Act 1997 is the main fisheries legislation of the country. This act deals with MIMRA affairs, fisheries conservation, management, and development issues, management/development of local fisheries, trade, foreign/domestic based fishing, licensing, and MCS.  

The section on conservation/management/development covers the following topics:

  • The responsibilities of MIMRA with respect to conservation, management and sustainable use of the fishery resources;

  • Objectives and purposes for fisheries management and development;

  • Determining total level of fishing and allocations of fishing rights;

  • Determining participatory rights in fishery;

  • Designated fisheries - fishery management and development plans;

  • Conservation and management measures;

  • Protection of certain species;

  • Protection and promotion of artisanal fisheries;

  • The Fisheries Exclusion Zone;

  • Cooperation on high seas fishing for highly migratory fish stocks;

  • Consultation on international fisheries management;

  • Fishing with poisons or explosives;

  • Limitations on taking turtles;

  • Control of sponges and of black-lip mother of pearl oyster shell;

  • Prohibition of harvesting trochus except during open season;

  • Introduction of fish into fishery waters;

  • Prohibition of removal of fish from nets, traps, etc. ;

  • Protection of fish aggregating devices, artificial reefs, mooring buoys, floats, trays;

  • Protection of fishing vessel or gear;

  • Use or possession of prohibited fishing gear;

  • Prohibition of driftnet fishing activities. 

Regulations have been issued under the act covering the requirements for: (a) foreign fishing agreements, (b) prior to entry of vessels for local government area activities, and (c) fish processing establishments.  


There are no published estimates of the value of investments or subsidies in the Marshall Islands fisheries sector. 

Apart from infrastructure, the major government fisheries-related asset are the loining plant (with private sector participation) the Majuro fish base, the Likiep giant clam hatchery, and the six outer island fisheries centres. The 1999 MIMRA Annual Report states that the total investment in the loining plant was US$5.2 million, of which $3.2 million is investor equity with the balance being a loan.   The original cost of the Majuro Fish Base is not available, but a 1998 report by the Forum Fisheries Agency indicates that a company from China made a US$4.05 investment in the facility in the mid-1990s and in the following three years made additional investments valued at US$1.88 million.   The cost of the fisheries centres is not known, but all of them were constructed with Japanese aid funds.

The major private sector investment in fisheries are the private component of the loining plant, aquarium fish export facilities, a clam hatchery in Majuro, a pearl oyster hatchery in Majuro, two pearl farms, one in Majuro and one in Arno, and the sportfishing vessels. For the small-scale fisheries, the major investments are in skiffs, outboard engines, and fishing gear. 

There are few obvious subsidies in the fisheries sector, with the exception of the fisheries centres.  Because the centres perform marketing services that the private sector is mostly unable to do economically, this could be considered a form of indirect subsidy.  


Projections for the supply and demand for fish are unavailable for the Marshall Islands.  Nevertheless, some crude estimates can be made by combining present fish consumption information with forecasts for population increases.  

The population of the Marshall Islands in 1999 was 50,840.  Depending on migration and changes in fertility, the 2025 population is likely to be between 72,100 and 111,800.  Taking the midpoint, this would be 1.81 times the 1999 population.  

There have been several attempts to calculate fish consumption in the Marshall Islands  in recent years. These estimates have ranged from 38.9 to 66.7 kg per person per year. 

If it is assumed that annual per capita consumption is 53 kg, then the Marshall Islands  consumed about 2,700 mt of fish in 1999.  If the population expands 1.81 times between 1999 and 2025 as indicated above, and per capita fish consumption remains the same as in 1998, about 4,900 mt of fish will be required in 2025.   


The Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority was established under the MIMRA Act 1988, and its functions further defined by the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Act 1997 .  MIMRA is the primary agency responsible for exploration, exploitation, regulation and management of living and non-living marine resources in the Marshall Islands. From the perspective of fisheries management in more developed countries, MIMRA may be somewhat unique in that the law requires it to be responsible for both the conservation and management of marine resources as well as their sustainable development.

MIMRA is responsible to a five-member board of directors, of which the Minister of Resources and Development is Chairman. In 1997 it was decided that the activities of MIMRA would henceforth be funded from fishing access fee revenues. MIMRA has five divisions: Policy and Planning, Oceanic Fisheries, Coastal Fisheries, Corporate Services, and Training.  The Authority is organised as shown in the diagram.



MIMRA is headquartered on the Marshall Islands’ capital island, Majuro.

There are local government councils on all the populated islands.  These entities share fisheries management jurisdiction with MIMRA in the areas within five miles of populated islands.

Other entities with some involvement in fisheries are the Marshall Islands Billfish Club and the Fisheries Nautical Training Centre.




This is interesting, as some observers have concluded that a marine laboratory located on Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands for several decades was responsible for the lagoon being one of the most studied tropical marine areas in the world.