Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


April 2002


Organisation des Nations Unies pour l'alimentation et l'agriculture


Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Agricultura y la Alimentación




Land area2:

810 sq. km

Ocean area:

3,550,000 sq. km

Length of coastline:

1,296 km

Population (2000)3:


Gross Domestic Product (2000)4:

US$ 54,460,000

Fishing contribution to GDP (2000):

US$ 11,729,000

GDP per caput (2000):

US$ 600


Commodity balance (1999):





Total supply

Per caput supply


Tonnes live weight equivalent


Fish for direct human consumption7






Fish for animal feed and other purposes







Estimated employment (1999):


(i) Primary sector:


(ii) Secondary sector:


(iii) Subsistence fisheries:


Gross value of Fisheries Output (1999)

US$ 14,200,000

Trade (1995): Value of imports

US$ 424,640

Value of exports10

US$ 1,485,160



Kiribati is an archipelagic nation comprising 33 islands with a total land area of only 810 sq. km. but with a surrounding EEZ of about 3.5 million sq. km that includes some of the most productive tuna fishing grounds in the Pacific. All the islands are of coralline origin and are surrounded by fringing or barrier coral reefs. The country is divided into three widely separated island groups - the Gilbert Group in the west, the Phoenix Group in the centre, and the Line Islands in the east - each surrounded by their own discrete portion of the EEZ. Several islands in the Line and Phoenix groups are uninhabited. The distance between the eastern and western extremes of the EEZ is over 4,500 km. There are no rivers, lakes or other freshwater impoundments in Kiribati, and therefore no freshwater fisheries.

Marine fisheries

Subsistence and small-scale artisanal fishing is conducted throughout the islands, from traditional canoes driven by sail or paddle, from plywood canoes powered by outboard motor and from larger outboard-powered skiffs. Fishing is by bottom hand-lining, trolling, pole-and-line fishing, mid-water hand-lining, spearing, trapping, netting and reef gleaning.

The majority of small-scale fishing activity in Kiribati is for subsistence purposes. In outer island areas especially, customary obligations relating to the sharing of catch among family and kinship groups prevail. Small-scale commercial fishing is concentrated around Tarawa where a sizable population, some ice and cold store facilities, and a cash-oriented economy create better market conditions. The commercial fish catch from the coastal zone is principally made up of reef and deep slope fish (54%), molluscs (25%), and pelagic species (21%).

There are approximately 200 to 250 small, motorized skiffs based in South Tarawa trolling for tuna and other large pelagic species. Surveys by the Fisheries Division show that weekly landings of tuna in Tarawa by these small-scale fishers is about 33 mt, or about 1650 mt per year. The weekly production for the other islands of Kiribati ranges from .5 mt to 20 mt per island, averaging 8 mt per island.

The arc shell Anadara is quite important in Tarawa and other lagoons in the northern part of the Gilbert Group. A study in the mid-1990s showed that the yearly catch of Anadara in Tarawa was 1,400 mt. The catches were about 9 kg per day from each of the estimated 500 subsistence gatherers, and 111 kg per day from each of the estimated 35 commercial divers.

The relatively recently-established aquarium fish industry in Kiribati now accounts for 78% of the value of all fishery exports from the country with the nominal reported FOB value of US$1,160,000. Aquarium fish collectors target a large number of species, with the major families being butterflyfish (Chaetodontidae), damselfish and angelfish (Pomacentridae), and surgeonfish (Acanthuridae).

Domestic industrial fishing activity in the country during the 1980s and early 1990s was dominated by Te Mautari Limited (TML), a wholly government-owned company established in 1981 to develop a pole-and-line tuna fishery in Kiribati's EEZ. Technical and economic difficulties associated with Kiribati's remoteness, lack of infrastructure and variability in resource abundance have, however, plagued TML's operations. Despite landing good catches in some years the company has rarely made a profit, and has required continued Government support. Since its establishment TML has been provided with assets and technical assistance with a value in excess of US$14 million, including six pole-and-line vessels, a refrigerated carrier vessel, cold stores, an ice plant and a wharf. The company's best production was reached in 1989 with a catch of 2,272 mt. In 1990 TML's fishing vessels were relocated to Solomon Islands but catches there were insufficient to cover operating costs. In 1991, following the accumulation of losses totaling approximately US$7 million the company's board suspended operations. Since that time four fishing vessels, the carrier vessel and a cold store were refurbished with donor assistance. The fleet operated intermittently in the Gilbert Group and in the Solomon Islands. In the late 1990s the refrigerated carrier vessel was leased for operations in other countries and became the sole source of income for TML. The company ceased operations in 2000. Recently the facilities have been refurbished and a new company, Central Pacific Producers, was created for tuna fishing operations.

In recent times the Government has entered into other industrial fishing ventures, notably a joint-venture purse-seine arrangement with a Japanese company. A single purse-seine vessel operates under this arrangement. Catches in 1999 by this vessel were about 5,000 mt, most of which were in the waters of Papua New Guinea. The seiner made no catches in Kiribati waters that year.

The Government has also undertaken negotiations with potential joint-venture partners with the intention of establishing a longline fishing base for the production of fresh tuna for sashimi markets. It is hoped to service such a fishery using shore facilities of the former TML.

Kiribati's EEZ is an important tuna fishing zone for industrial fleets from a number of distant-water fishing nations (DWFNs) including Japan, Taiwan, Korea, the United States, and Spain. In 1999 a total of 132,391 mt of tuna were caught by DWFNs, using primarily purse seine gear. In early 2001 the licensed fleet consisted of about 260 longliners, 95 purse seiners, and 37 pole/line vessels.

An important point about tuna fishing in Kiribati concerns the oceanographic conditions and their affect on tuna purse seining. During El Niño periods, the areas which have conditions favorable to seining move from Papua New Guinea and the Federated States of Micronesia eastward to the Kiribati zone, resulting in large tuna catches in the Gilbert, Phoenix, and Line Islands.

Employment of Kiribati citizens on foreign vessels, both merchant and fishing, is a major source of revenue for the country, with remittances from Kiribati seamen forming a major part of household income, especially in rural areas. Fishermen are trained for foreign service by the Kiribati Fisheries Training Centre, and then hired on to DWFN vessels (mainly Japanese) through a locally-based recruitment agency, Kiribati Fisherman's Services (KFS) Ltd.. In 2000 about 350 Kiribati fishermen were employed on overseas fishing vessels. KFS has a target of placing 1,000 Kiribati crew on foreign fishing vessels.

Inland fisheries

There are no freshwater fisheries in Kiribati. Impoundment of milkfish (Chanos chanos) fry at spring tides occurs in brackish water lagoons on some islands and the fish are subsequently harvested after growing to a larger size. The deliberate impoundment and on-growing of milkfish has been developed to a commercial level in Christmas island, where the naturally occurring brackish lagoons have been linked together by man-made channels to form a series of milkfish ranching impoundments with a total surface of over 1,000 ha. Fish are harvested for local consumption and for air export to Honolulu.


An 80 ha milkfish farm was established by government on South Tarawa in the late 1970s to produce bait for the domestic pole-and-line fishery. However the farm has never operated with great success, partly because of infestation of the ponds by introduced tilapia, and partly due to the performance difficulties of the national pole-and-line fleet. There are plans to increase production of milkfish for food and to produce frozen bait for longline vessels. The Government is also attempting to promote private milkfish farming in suitable outer island areas.

Eucheuma seaweeds have been cultured in Kiribati since the early 1980s and farms established in suitable atolls throughout the country's three island groups. Farming involves attaching small pieces of seaweed to lengths of fishing line staked out in the lagoons. The seaweed is harvested after 45 to 60 days, sun-dried and packed into bales for shipping. Commercial exports commenced in 1990 when the government-operated Atoll Seaweed Company established to foster this industry and 100 mt was shipped to Denmark. Production increased significantly in 1995 following the establishment of a new programme of technical support by the Government. Production in 2000 was 1,435 mt of which 1,381 mt came from the Line Group.

Other forms of aquaculture are being investigated in Kiribati, including farming of pearl oysters (for pearl production), giant clams and beche-de-mer, but none of these are yet close to entering a commercial phase. Other species which have been tried in the past are brine shrimp, cockles, mojarra, molly, mullet, and mussel.

In the late 1990s trochus was transplanted from Fiji to a quarantine facility in Tarawa and subsequently to an outer island.

Utilization of the catch

In the outer islands catches are mainly used for home consumption, or shared, although some excess catch may be salted and dried for later consumption or sale. Some islands have been equipped with ice and cold storage plants with the intention of storing catches for transport to and sale in South Tarawa. Such schemes continue to meet with limited economic success due to the difficulties and cost of maintaining the infrastructure and transporting the product.

Catches taken by artisanal fishers in South Tarawa are mainly sold alongside the road from insulated ice boxes. Some are disposed of through a small commercial fish market. Although market preference is for fresh product, frozen fish is readily sold when demand for fresh fish exceeds supply, and salted fish is in steady demand due to taste preference. A study by the Fisheries Department indicates that some 89 per cent of the catch taken around South Tarawa is marketed, compared to only 18 per cent in other areas of the Gilbert Group.

Some of the Tarawa tuna catch is processed into jerky. A small processing/exporting company was established in 1990 and began exporting tuna jerky in 1993. Exports of this product reached a maximum in 1996 when 1,380 kg worth US$57,960 was sent to Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Japan, and Hawaii. A new factory was built in 1999 and a new jerky product for cats was added to the exports.

The aquarium fish are exported to distributors the mainland United States via Hawaii.

The tuna catches by the offshore foreign-based fishing vessels are disposed of in a variety of ways. Tuna from the Japanese vessels (seiners, longliners, pole/line vessels) is delivered directly to Japan. The US vessels offload their catch at the canneries in Pago Pago, American Samoa. Most of the Taiwanese and Korean purse seine vessels usually transship their catch from Tarawa or Majuro to canneries in Thailand or elsewhere.


Seafood is a key source of nutrition for the Kiribati population, accounting for around three-quarters of animal protein in the national diet. Seafood is also a very popular and desired food and many cases is the largest component of household meals. The level of per capita seafood consumption is one of the highest in the world, with estimates variously ranging from 72 to over 200 kg over the past decade.

In the less-populated centres, supplies from subsistence and small artisanal fishing activities are normally sufficient to meet demand. In the urban areas, particularly Tarawa, shortfalls in supply may occur, especially now that TML vessels are not operational. In Tarawa there is a growing trend towards fish being replaced by cheap, low-grade imported forms of protein. Canned fish imports are about 380 mt annually equivalent in food value to about 760 mt of whole fish.

Economic role of the fishing industry

A recent study by the Asian Development Bank estimated that the fishing contribution to GDP was about US$11.7 million. This equates to 21.5% of GDP. This appears to be considerably higher than the fishing contribution of any other Pacific Island country.

Exports of fishery products were valued at US$1,485,160 in 1999. This represents 16.9% of the value of all exports from the country in that year.

Surveys by the Fisheries Division indicate 88% of the households in Kiribati participate in fishing. Of those that do fish, 17% fish commercially full time, 22% fish commercially part-time, and 61% fish only for subsistence. The 1995 census showed that the main source of cash income for 29% of the 11,920 households in Kiribati was fishing.

Revenues derived from the licensing of foreign vessels for fishing access in Kiribati's EEZ have ranged from an annual average of around US$200,000 in the early 1980s to between US$1.4 and US$3.4 million during the period 1985-1990. Revenues increased significantly to more than US$9 million in 1991-92, but this high level resulted from the payment of fees for fishing activity in previous years, record catches by the US purse seine fleet, and revenue from fines, settlements and forfeitures for illegal fishing. Nine prosecutions for illegal fishing activity were successfully pursued between 1987-91, generating revenues of US$5.6 million. Fishing conditions in 1999 and 2000 resulted in a remarkable increase in access fees from foreign purse seine activity in the Kiribati zone. Almost US$20 million was received annually for the two years. This is about one-third of all government income.

Kiribati fishing crew serving on foreign vessels remit over US$ 0.8 million per year in wages back to Kiribati. Of this some 80% goes to the outer islands, making a significant contribution to their local economies.


Kiribati's coastal and marine habitats harbour many species of finfish and non-finfish resources of commercial interest, including lobster, deep-water shrimp, giant clam, ark shell, pearl oyster and beche-de-mer. In general, however, these inshore resources are limited because of the small area of land, reef and lagoon, and would not be able to support large fisheries. Deep slope bottom-fish resources, for example, have been estimated as capable of a sustaining a yield of between 73 and 219 mt/year. In addition, high levels of exploitation near population centres are already occurring in some cases. Potential for development of inshore resources is thus limited, although certain aquaculture ventures may possibly have long-term potential.

Regional skipjack tuna stocks are considered to be under-exploited and capable of withstanding significantly increased fishing effort. Although less is known about yellowfin and bigeye tuna, their stocks are considered healthy and current catch levels sustainable. However annual catches in Kiribati's EEZ vary widely depending on climatic and oceanographic conditions elsewhere in the western tropical Pacific. Tuna abundance may be very high one year, and then very low the next, causing severe difficulties for the sustainable operation of domestic-based commercial fishing ventures.

The problems experienced by the national fishing company, TML, and of some other schemes to develop commercial fisheries indicate that significant problems continue to stand in the way of fisheries development in Kiribati. These include: the poor competitiveness of pole-and-line fishing under current conditions; nearshore resource limitations; poorly developed cold storage, handling and shipping infrastructure; seasonal fluctuations in fish availability; indirect airline services; high overhead costs relative to low levels of production; insufficient water supplies; and the cost and difficulty of enforcing fishing regulations and licensing compliance.

There are nevertheless few options other than marine resource use to further national economic self-sufficiency in Kiribati. It is therefore likely that the government will have to pursue policies aimed at: improving efficiency in institutions responsible for marine resource management and development; ensuring long-term and sustainable revenue flows through DWFN access agreements; improving surveillance; and promoting diversification in the fishing industry likely to increase the flow of domestic benefits. With previous high levels of public investment in the fisheries sector having failed to result in successful enterprises it is likely that future development will depend on government limiting its role to ensuring an attractive investment climate, providing infrastructure, and promoting entrepreneurship through the provision of credit and training programmes.


The basic fisheries law of Kiribati is the Fisheries Act. In this legislation the "Minister may take such measures as he shall see fit to promote the development of fishing and fisheries in Kiribati to ensure that the fisheries resources of Kiribati are exploited to the full for the benefit of Kiribati."

The Act gives the President of Kiribati, acting in accordance with the advice of Cabinet, wide powers to make regulations, including the licensing of fishing vessels, the protection of all species of fish, prohibition of fishing gear and methods and the organisation and regulation of seafood marketing and export. The Act also contains a provision to protect the traditional fishing rights of Kiribati communities by prohibiting the taking of fish in any traditional fishing area except by members of the area's traditional owners or custodians, unless a license from the Minister has been obtained.

Regulations issued subsidiary to the Act are:

  • Prohibited Fishing Areas (Designation) Regulations 1978;

  • Fisheries Conservation and Protection (Rock Lobster - Panulirus species) Regulations 1979;

  • Fisheries (Processing and Export) Regulations 1981;

  • Fisheries (Vessel Licences) Regulations 1981;

  • Fisheries (Vessel Licences) Regulation (No. 1) 1982.

Other legal instruments relevant to fisheries include:

  • The Marine Zones (Declaration) Act 1983 which defines and establishes a twelve mile territorial sea and a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

  • The Fisheries (Pacific Island Parties’ Treaty with United States of America) Act 1988 implements the Treaty on Fisheries Between the Governments of Certain Pacific Island States and the Government of the United States of America.

  • The Native Lands Code gives legal recognition to ownership of fish traps, reefs and fish ponds.

  • Many of the island councils throughout Kiribati have rules concerning fishery practices.

The Ministry of Natural Resources Development (MNRD) has comprehensive responsibility for policy and management matters relating to Kiribati's marine resources. It is also responsible for development coordination and project evaluation prior to the consideration of such by the Planning Office of the Ministry of Finance.

The Fisheries Division of MNRD is the key agency dealing with marine resource development and management and is charged with undertaking research, data collection, project implementation, project evaluation, and the commercialisation and privatisation of marine resource projects. Fisheries management activities include resource assessment, monitoring, regulation and enforcement. The Division has a staff of more than eighty, supervised by the Chief Fisheries Officer. Each of the Division's operational units, which includes Statistics, Aquaculture, Fisheries Development, Training, Extension, Marketing, Research, Licensing and Enforcement, and the Pearl Oyster Collaborative Project is headed by a Fisheries Officer or Assistant Fisheries Officer.

The Ministry of the Environment and Social Development and its Department of Environment and Conservation are responsible for evaluating the environmental impacts of marine resource export developments and are also concerned with the protection of subsistence fisheries, and the protection of marine habitats and marine life. The Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism is charged with evaluating foreign investment in the marine resources sector, local companies involved in marine product export, and supporting private sector development. The Ministry of Home Affairs is responsible for internal affairs, including Outer Island Development activities and the Ministry of Line and Phoenix Groups oversees all developments in those islands.


The Fisheries Division, usually with the support of external donors or organisations, undertakes fisheries and aquaculture research in Kiribati. The objectives of the Division's Research Unit are to conduct research on marine resources that have potential for development and to coordinate collaborative research activities with regional research organisations. Past and current research activities include:

  • The Seaweed Growth Monitoring Programme, which investigates Eucheuma seaweed growth rates at various locations and under various conditions with the aim of determining optimum sites and seasonality for farming;

  • Monitoring of the beche-de-mer fishery, including plans to investigate the potential to culture some commercial species;

  • Giant Clam Stock Assessment, including plans to investigate the potential for farming.

  • The Pearl Oyster Collaborative Project, which is funded by the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research, is investigating the potential for developing Kiribati’s black-lipped pearl oyster resources with the longer-term view of establishing commercial pearl farming.

Past research has included studies of deep-bottom fish, deep-water prawns, tuna baitfish, pelagic fish species in the Line Islands, and other resources. The Division's Aquaculture Unit is also involved in research aimed at eradicating tilapia from the Tarawa milkfish ponds.

Marine and fishery sector training in Kiribati is aimed mainly at enabling Kiribati citizens to find overseas employment on cargo or fishing vessels. The Kiribati Marine Training Centre (MTC) was established in the late 1970s in partnership with a commercial shipping agency to provide training for merchant seamen. For several years MTC also offered a training programme aimed at the fishing sector but this function has now been taken over by the Fisheries Training Centre (FTC), which was established in 1989 with Japanese aid support. The Centre currently trains up to 60 crew a year to the standards of discipline and safety required by Japanese fishing vessels. The graduates of the school are then placed by Kiribati Fisherman's Services (KFS) Ltd., a company which is 99% owned by the Federation of Japan Tuna Fisheries Cooperative Associations, and which acts as an employment agency for this purpose. The activities of FTC and KFS are closely and actively coordinated. So far the Centre has trained over 500 people.

A certain amount of academic-level training in marine resources is available in Kiribati via the Atoll Research Centre, which is affiliated with the University of the South Pacific, as well as through USP's Kiribati Extension Centre.

International issues

The Fisheries Division maintains direct contact on technical issues with regional and international organisations dealing in fisheries. Policy and other matters are managed in the first instance through designated contact points, most often the Department of Foreign Affairs. Kiribati is a member of the South Pacific Commission (SPC), the South Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) and the South Pacific Regional Environmental Programme (SPREP). Kiribati is also party to a number of treaties and agreements relating to the management of regional fisheries, including:

  • the Treaty on Fisheries Between the Governments of Certain Pacific Island States and the Government of the United States of America;

  • the 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.

Kiribati is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 Relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, and the Convention on the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean


Bilateral programmes of technical cooperation, collaboration and assistance have been provided by the Governments of Japan, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and USA, and by multilateral donors including UNDP, ADB, FAO, UNCDF. Kiribati also enjoys technical assistance or the channeling of multilateral donor assistance from various regional agencies including, FFA, SPC, and SOPAC. Significant assistance projects have included:

Japanese funding for Outer Island Fish Centres, a pilot beche-de-mer hatchery, funding for the Tarawa Fishermen’s Cooperative, provision of a cargo and passenger vessel to help link outer island fisheries centres, and assistance in the establishment and upgrading of Te Mautari Limited and Central Pacific Producers;

Australian funding for the overseas training of fisheries personnel, a pilot black-lipped pearl oyster hatchery, and provision of fish processing equipment for a private venture on Tarawa;

New Zealand assistance in the overseas training of fisheries personnel, and support to the establishment of Eucheuma seaweed farming, including the formation of the Atoll Seaweed Company;

British funding of management personnel for Te Mautari Limited and assistance to Outer Islands Project activities on Butaritari, Abemama and Abaiang;

United Nations Development Programme support to the establishment of milkfish farming on Tarawa, initial design of Te Mautari fishing vessels, an artisanal boat building project, overseas training for fisheries personnel, and a brine shrimp project on Kiritimati;

Asian Development Bank assistance has been provided for a study of export market development, institutional strengthening of the Environmental Unit and a soft loan to the Development Bank of Kiribati to support a fishing vessel credit scheme, and;

  • European Union funding of a Marine Resource Sector Review and support to the Atoll Seaweed Company.

The Kiribati Strategic Investment Programme lists priority projects over A$50,000 for aid funding. Of the 32 projects listed, only the Fisheries Training Centre (A$6.9 million) is in the fisheries sector.


The following websites have information relevant to fisheries in Kiribati: - Information on Kiribati fisheries and links to other sites concerning Kiribati; General information on Kiribati with many Kiribati-relevant links ; - recent information on Kiribati fisheries and life in Kiribati




Average 1999 rate of exchange US$ 1.00 = Australian dollar (A$) $1.5500; 1.7250 in 2000



Source: South Pacific Commission Statistical Summary 2000.



Source: South Pacific Commission 2000 mid-year estimate.



Source for GDP data: Gillett and Lightfoot (2001). The Contribution of Fisheries to the Economies of Pacific Island Countries. Asian Development Bank, Manila.


Breakdown (tonnes): Coastal subsistence - 10,000; Coastal commercial - 6,000; Offshore locally-based 0; Total 16,000.
Note: The above does not include the catch by offshore foreign-based vessels of 132,000 mt


Data is from 1995 (latest available)



Various government and non-government sources as given in Gillett and Lightfoot (2001).



Breakdown: Subsistence fisheries US$7,890,322, coastal commercial fisheries US$6,309,677



Data is from 1995 (latest available)



From a variety of government sources given in Gillett and Lightfoot (2001)