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Fishing in Micronesia

Fishing in Micronesia


Land area2:

701 sq. km

Ocean area:

2,980,000 sq. km

Length of coastline:


Length of 200 m isobath:

2,468 km

Population (1999)3:


Gross Domestic Product (1999)4:

US$ 1,821 million

Fishing contribution to GDP (1999):

42,9 million

GDP per caput (1999):



Commodity balance (1999)





Total supply

Per caput supply


Tonnes live weight equivalent


Fish for direct human consumption5






Fish for animal feed and other purposes






Estimated employment (1999)7:


(i) Primary sector:


(ii) Secondary sector:


(iii) Subsistence fisheries:


Gross value of Fisheries Output (1999)8:

US$ 65,546,304

Trade: Value of imports (1998)9:

US$ 22,106,517

Value of exports (1999)10:

US$ 29,193,745



Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) occupies a major part of the group of Micronesian Islands called the Carolines, a chain stretching over 2,500 km. in an east-west direction roughly parallel to the equator. There are four states in FSM, which from east to west are Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk and Yap. Although the total land surface of FSM’s 600 islands (65 of which are populated) is only about 701 sq. km. the EEZ covers a vast area of almost 3 million sq. km. and includes some of the richest tuna fishing grounds in the Pacific.

FSM is an independent state associated with the USA in a Compact of Free Association in effect since 1986. FSM has a federal government as well as four state governments which have a high degree of autonomy. The states have jurisdiction over waters within 12 nautical miles from islands, while the national government has the control over water beyond 12 miles to the outer boundary of the EEZ. Each state has its own administrative organisations, several agencies involved in fisheries, and its own plans for fisheries development and management.   

Marine fisheries

Marine resource use consists of inshore fisheries (those taking place in mangroves, reef areas, and lagoons), nearshore and bottom fisheries, and offshore fisheries (mainly for tuna). Subsistence fishers make the greatest use of inshore resources, coastal commercial fishers concentrate on nearshore and bottom resources, and offshore resources are exploited by local and foreign-based tuna vessels.  

Subsistence and coastal commercial fishing employing a wide range of fishing gears and techniques is widespread in FSM. It is of primary importance in outer island communities and areas most distant from the main population centers. The most common fishing techniques are spearing (both by day and with the use of lights at night), trolling from 5 to 6 m outboard-powered skiffs, hand-lining, gill-netting and cast-netting. A 1995 report on subsistence fishing in Pohnpei alone estimated that a total of around 1,710 to 1,850 tons per year are caught by subsistence fishers. In both the Chuuk lagoon and the main island of Yap, traditional ownership of reefs is maintained and formally recognised, limiting access to these areas.

In the main islands of each state small-scale fishers sell catch in excess of their own requirements through various outlets. A few fishers and traders export small quantities of fish to Guam and Saipan, often as baggage on passenger aircraft. These fisheries are essentially extensions of the subsistence fishery and mostly rely on inshore species, which are susceptible to over-exploitation. Artisanal fishers also harvest trochus, some beche-de-mer, crabs, and some lobster for export. Pohnpei state has prohibited the export of its mangrove crabs.  

The greatest cash value inshore resource is trochus (Trochus niloticus) shells, a commodity introduced to various locations within FSM by the Japanese before 1940. About 200 t of trochus, with an estimated value of US$1.2 million, is harvested annually in the FSM.  

Attempts to develop and structure the small-scale commercial fishery, through projects such as the financing of fishing craft in Chuuk and Kosrae, as well as other schemes, have met with limited success. Problems with catch distribution and marketing have remained important constraints.

Nearshore and bottom fish resources are utilized by small-scale commercial fishers operating mainly from outboard boats of 5 to 7 m in length. Most hand-line bottom-fishing is conducted in waters shallower than 100 m, as the bathymetry of FSM’s islands does not provide much demersal habitat below that limit. Hand-line trolling is a common method employed by these vessels. Ice is usually not carried and the catch is either sold immediately upon landing, or else iced or refrigerated on shore for later sale.

FSM’s EEZ contains substantial tuna stocks that are fished primarily by foreign longline, purse seine and pole-and-line vessels under access arrangements. The operation of these vessels in FSM waters has increased steadily since the establishment of FSM’s Micronesian Maritime Authority in 1979. During the years 1991-99, an estimated 1,250,300 tonnes of tuna were caught in the FSM EEZ. Of this amount, 86.3% was caught by purse seine, 8.8% by longline, and 4.8% by pole and line. In 1999 about 130,000 tonnes of tuna was taken in the FSM zone, of which only about 2% was captured by locally-based vessels. The overall catch consisted of 74% skipjack, 20.5% yellowfin, and 4.6% bigeye.

Purse seine fishing is currently permitted in FSM by vessels registered in Japan, Taiwan, Korea, USA, and Vanuatu, in addition to four locally-owned seiners. Longline fishing is currently carried out in FSM by Japanese, Chinese, and Taiwanese vessels in addition to those that are locally-owned. The number of vessels fluctuates from year to year, and even within years, depending on fishing conditions in FSM and elsewhere. Pole and line tuna fishing in FSM is exclusively by Japanese vessels, which are all based in Japan.

There is much inter-annual variation in the amount of tuna captured in FSM. The 1998 catch of target species in FSM was only 18.5% of the 1995 catch. This decline followed the climatic event known as La Niña that occurred in 1995. During such periods, surface tuna schools are most active in the western Pacific Ocean in the area of the FSM EEZ. In contrast, 1998 was a particularly severe El Niño year and the surface schools were concentrated more to the eastern part of the central Pacific.

The fees from foreign fishing in the FSM zone are extremely important to the country. In early 2000 there were 7 bilateral and one multilateral foreign fishing agreements in place. Between 1979 and late 2000 the FSM received over $170 million in fees for the rights to fish for tuna.

In recent years many Taiwanese and Korean purse seiners have used ports in FSM for transshipping tuna caught in FSM and in the zones of neighboring countries. In 1999 90,500 tonnes was transshipped through FSM ports, mainly Chuuk and Pohnpei.  

FSM is keen to participate more directly in the harvesting of its substantial tuna resources, and national investment in domestic tuna fishing and processing capacity has been substantial, at more than US$ 100 million. The National Fisheries Corporation (NFC), a commercial entity established in 1989, has been the lead agency charged with developing a domestic tuna fishery.  

In 1995 an Asian Development Bank fisheries development loan for $6.5 million was extended to FSM Government for the purpose of developing a fleet of locally-owned longline vessels targeting the fresh sashimi market. The Micronesian Longline Fishing Company was founded and in mid-2001 was operating seven longliners from Pohnpei.  

Inland fisheries

FSM has no significant inland fisheries.  


Aquaculture has been the focus of technical and development attention in FSM, as well as in some neighbouring countries, for over 20 years. Numerous documents, reports and reviews exist, most of which emphasize the potential of specific forms of aquaculture for development as well as for other purposes, such as reef reseeding.

A National Aquaculture Center (NAC) was established in Kosrae in 1991 to explore aquaculture potential and to undertake research, demonstration and training. Its primary work involved propagation of giant clams for farming and re-seeding in other states. In its early days the NAC was the operational base for aquaculture extension agents funded through the US Center for Tropical and Sub-Tropical Aquaculture (CTSA)/ Land Grant Program, but these have now relocated their activities to Pohnpei.

Despite the activities of the Center, so far no private commercial culture operations for giant clam have commenced in FSM, there has been little reseeding activity carried out, and there appears to be little prospect of any such development in the foreseeable future.

Other aquaculture initiatives have been and continue to be supported both by the Government and by several local and international organisations working in FSM, including CTSA, the College of Micronesia, Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers, the Pohnpei Agricultural Training School, and the FAO South Pacific Regional Aquaculture Programme. Sponge culture trials were begun in Pohnpei about 10 years ago and several pilot farms started in Pohnpei with donor funding support, but none of these has grown to become a commercial operation. The culture of Eucheuma seaweed was attempted in Pohnpei during the mid 1980’s, but relatively low returns to farmers and other problems prohibited it from developing despite success in growing the seaweed. Black pearl culture trials began on Nukuoro atoll in Pohnpei state in 1995 but have not yet reached commercialization. Ventures in farming milkfish, tilapia, carp and prawns have been attempted or proposed but so far have failed to lead to commercial development.

Despite widespread interest among both national and state governments in the commercial potential of various aquaculture pursuits, there has been very little commercial development of aquaculture.   

Utilization of the catch

In the outer islands where subsistence fishing prevails, fish landings may exceed demand and excess catch may be given away or informally bartered in return for favours or obligations. Surplus catch may also be preserved using simple techniques such as smoking, salting and drying.

The catch from artisanal fisheries is mostly marketed in the four main population centers where local demand for fresh fish is strong and generally exceeds supply. There are no central domestic fish markets, and the catch is sold directly to consumers, retail outlets and restaurants. In practice, each center has two or three smaller markets which operate privately as re-sellers. Chuuk has two cooperative societies that market their members’ catch in the population center. Yap’s fresh fish is mainly marketed through the Yap Fishing Authority retail outlet in Colonia.

In Pohnpei the road system now links most inhabited areas of the island with the population center, as a result of which many people commute to work. This in turn has allowed numerous small fish markets to spring up around the island. A 1995 survey found 51 such markets scattered around the island, with an average daily fish sales volume of 73 kg. The total fish consumption in Pohnpei was estimated at around 3,000 t per annum.

A number of attempts have been made to provide improved access to markets for outer island fishers. Such schemes, whether sponsored by government or private entrepreneurs have met with only limited success, constrained by low production levels, erratic or unsuitable shipping services and inadequate catch handling infrastructure at the fishing sites. A small amount of artisanally-caught seafood is exported to Guam and Saipan by air freight, but no regular supply lines exist and most goes to expatriate Micronesians living in those areas.

The majority of fish landed in FSM by locally-based longline vessels (most vessels are based in Pohnpei) is air-exported to Japan air, via Guam. Estimated production by these vessels (about 35 total) in mid-2001 was about 80 to 100 tonnes per month. Fish which are not of export quality (about 20% of landings) are sold locally, either to processors who produce value-added products for export, or to restaurants and on the local market.

Although FSM produces an average of 200 tonnes of trochus per year, there is no local processing. In the past 20 years there have been three trochus button blank factories (all on Pohnpei), but all have ceased operation. This is thought to be due to irregularity in supply of raw material and relatively high labour costs.  

Although each of the states has considered establishing tuna canneries, including Chuuk States consideration of a US$35 million plant at Tonoas island, none have yet been established. The Pohnpei Fisheries Corporation operates a fish processing facility that produces a range of tuna products, including vacuum-packed fresh and frozen loins and smoked fish. The plant sources fresh tuna from landings by foreign and domestic longliners, buying fish that have been graded as not of appropriate size or sufficiently high quality to justify air freighting. The facility has not been profitable due to many factors including insufficient/erratic fish supplies.  

In late 2001 there were four tuna purse seiners wholly-owned by FSM entities. These four vessels (two based at Pohnpei, and one each at Yap and Chuuk) sell their catch on the world market, landing at either the canneries in American Samoa or transshipping from various overseas ports.  


Fish and marine resources have traditionally been an important component of the Micronesian diet. Increased urbanization in all four centers has meant increases in demand at each location. This has been met partly by imports of cheap fish, such as canned Asian mackerel, as locally-produced fish and other traditional protein sources have increased in price.  

The local market for fresh fish continue to operate in urban centres , however reductions in government employment due to reduced overseas support has meant somewhat less consumption in several locations.  

There have been several attempts to calculate fish consumption in FSM. In recent years those estimates encompassing the whole country have ranged from 72 to 114 kg per person per year. Data from a 1997 household income and expenditure survey suggest that canned fish is responsible for about 25% of this consumption.

Economic role of the fishing industry  

It has been recently estimated by the Asian Development Bank that in FSM the catches by subsistence fishing are worth US$10 million, by coastal commercial fishing US$14.5 million, by locally-based offshore fishing US$12.5 million, and by foreign based vessel US$144 million. The same study also calculated that locally-based fishing in FSM in 199811 was responsible for about 9.5 per cent of the country’s GDP.  

Fish is the top export from the country. In 1997, the last year for which total export data is available, total exports recorded in government statistics amounted to $4.9 million, of which “fish” exports were $4.6 million or 94%.

The fees from foreign fishing in the FSM zone represent a very important source of income for the FSM government. In fiscal year 1999 access fees represented an estimated 39% of non-tax revenue and 22% of total domestic revenue for the national government.  

Employment data in FSM is not thought to be very accurate and fisheries-related job data is scarce. Some idea of the employment situation is provided by a recent study by the Forum Fisheries Agency which examined FSM’s tuna industry in 2000 and estimated the various types of jobs related to tuna fishing. Using the most recent estimates of numbers of local longliners and purse seiners, the number of FSM people working on locally-based tuna vessels is estimated to be 254, of whom 86 are FSM citizens. About 150 FSM citizens are employed aboard foreign tuna vessels. There are 178 FSM citizens shore-based employed by the tuna enterprises, including processors/exporters. The artisanal tuna fishing activity equates to about 200 jobs. It therefore appears that about 614 people from FSM are directly employed in the tuna industry.  

Development prospects

Much of the fisheries development potential in FSM is dependent on the condition of the country’s tuna resources. The latest full-scale assessment of the status of FSM tuna stocks was done in August 1995 by Dr. J. Sibert. The report of the assessment concluded that:

    the stocks are in good condition, and it would be safe to increase harvest levels somewhat.

    The tuna fishery has many components, and the decision on whether to allow increases in all components or to confine increases to selected components depends on specific fisheries development goals of the FSM.

    Current harvest levels do not pose a threat to the sustainability of the fishery, but high purse seine catches may be depressing the yield of longline fisheries.

    Harvest levels of the longline fleets could be increased cautiously, but there should be no increase in purse seine harvest levels.

In the past, the government of FSM has attempted to benefit from the relatively abundant tuna resources by direct government participation in fishing and processing. This has proven to be quite unprofitable, resulting in huge financial losses for the country. Privatization of the government-owned fisheries enterprises has commenced but much remains to be done.

There appear to be tuna-related development opportunities, especially in servicing locally-based fishing vessels and supplying transshipping vessels. The feasibility of operating longliners from FSM ports is likely to improve with economies of scale; as more vessels base locally, the support infrastructure and logistics will improve. It is likely that this progression will also improve the airfreight situation, although the country’s longline industry is likely to remain vulnerable to problems associated with air transport. If the government’s present efforts to improve the business environment in FSM are successful, the economics of operating longline vessels from FSM ports should improve substantially.

It is likely that fees from foreign fishing activity in the FSM will continue to be a very important source of income for the FSM government. Recent studies have suggested that any changes to the present licensing regime should focus on lowering transaction costs associated with the licensing, reducing compliance costs, improving transparency, reducing confrontations with the foreign fleets and the FSM Congress, and taking active steps to increase rent in the fishery, such as a reduction in allowable effort. Several observers of the Pacific Islands fishing situation have concluded that multi-lateral licensing between Pacific Island countries and foreign fleets could increase benefits to FSM and neighboring countries.

Value-added processing industries have been operating for some time in Pohnpei utilizing non-sashimi grade tuna and by-catch of the fishery. The supply is erratic however, and a more stable fleet of foreign vessels needs to be in place to assure raw material supply.

Small-scale fisheries operating in coastal areas will be able to take advantage of export markets in Guam and Saipan, but resource concerns will probably limit any substantial expansion.

There have been critical reviews of aquaculture potential in FSM in 1990 and again in 2000:

    The 1990 review concluded: “The present status of aquaculture in the FSM indicated that the prospects for commercial activities has been exaggerated. Expectations have been inflated to unrealistic levels through uncritical assertions about the commercial viability of aquaculture. On the evidence obtained in the course of the review, and from analysis of similar activity throughout the Pacific and Asia, aquaculture will not be a significant revenue earner for the FSM”.

    The review in 2000 concluded: “despite widespread interest among both national and state governments in the commercial potential of various aquaculture pursuits, there has been very little commercial development. Traditional land tenure systems are a further impediment to the development of terrestrial aquaculture projects in some areas. Prospects for commercial activities have probably been overstated, and it seems unlikely that the sector will become a significant revenue earner for FSM, at least in the near future.”

It should be noted that some aquaculture specialists in FSM believe there is some potential and feel that the future development of aquaculture in the country will revolve around high-value export products such as pearls, aquarium life, sponges, and perhaps organisms with pharmaceutical properties.


The main legislation dealing with fisheries in FSM is Title 24 of the Code of the Federated States of Micronesia. The preamble of this law states: “The purpose of this Title is to promote conservation, management, and development of the marine resources of the Federated States of Micronesia, generate the maximum benefit for the Nation from foreign fishing, and to promote the development of a domestic fishing industry”. Title 24 has the following components:

    General Provisions

    Domestic Fishing

    Management Authority

    Foreign Fishing

    Violations and Penalties

    State Entities for Development of Marine Resources

    National Fisheries Corporation

Title 18 of the Code establishes a territorial sea twelve nautical miles in breadth from an island baseline. Chapter 23 of the Code deals with marine species preservation. It prohibits the catching of marine life through the use of explosives, poisons, chemicals or other substances, or the use of those substances with the intent to kill marine life. There are also limitations, in the form of seasonal closures and size restrictions, on the taking of turtles, sponges, black-lip mother-of-pearl oyster shell and trochus. The taking of marine mammals for commercial purposes or by commercial fishing parties is prohibited.

An important facet of the legislation in FSM with respect to fisheries is the partitioning of jurisdiction between the national government and state governments. Article IX of the Constitution gives the National Government power “ regulate the ownership, exploration, and exploitation of natural resources within the marine space of the Federated States of Micronesia beyond 12 miles from island baselines." Fisheries within the territorial sea and the internal waters of FSM are subject to the legislative control of the adjacent FSM State.

Fisheries legislation in all four states is in the process of being modified. In 1996, draft legislation was prepared for each State in consultation with State officials. The draft legislation was intended, in each case, to enable community or traditional participation in fisheries management, and to harmonize key provisions among states and with the national government for effective management and enforcement purposes. Since that time, there have been changes in personnel, political administrations and priorities in the states. There has been uneven progress in revising the fisheries laws – by mid-2001 only Kosrae had enacted the new fisheries legislation.

FSM’s main national fisheries bodies are:

    The Micronesian Fisheries Authority (MFA), which is the government’s regulatory and management arm, established to control the use of and manage and conserve the resources within FSM’s 200-mile EEZ;

    The National Fisheries Corporation (NFC), responsible for promoting the development of pelagic fisheries and related industries.

    The Fisheries Section of the National Government Department of Economic Affairs (DEA), which provides national and state governments with technical services and support for development and management of marine resources, including non-living resources. The Section is also responsible for administration of the National Aquaculture Centre (NAC) in Kosrae, established in 1991 as a focal point for aquaculture demonstration, training and advisory services.

    The Maritime Surveillance Wing of the Department of Justice, which is responsible for surveillance and enforcement. The Division operates three patrol boats provided under grant-aid by Australia.

Various government departments and semi-government agencies are involved in marine resource use and management at the state level, including:

    The Pohnpei Marine Resources Division;

    The Pohnpei Economic Development Authority;

    The Kosrae Marine Resources Division;

    The Chuuk Department of Marine Resources;

    The Yap Marine Resources Management Division;

    The Yap Fishing Authority.

There is some overlapping of responsibilities and activities with those of the federal organisations.  

International issues

Both the Micronesian Fisheries Authority and the national Fisheries Section of DEA maintain direct contact on technical issues with regional and international organisations dealing in fisheries. Policy and other matters are managed in the first instance through the Department of External Affairs. FSM is a member of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), the South Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) and the South Pacific Regional Environmental Programme (SPREP). FSM 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.

FSM 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.

Research and training

On-site marine fisheries research has in the past been undertaken mostly by foreign governments and institutions. The country’s past ties with Japan and its relative proximity has meant that FSM has often been used as a research area for Japanese university research vessels and training ships.

The national Fisheries Section of DEA undertakes fisheries and aquaculture research at the national level. This has included monitoring, intended to allow ongoing assessment of the status of the main fisheries; surveys and assessments of specific resources; and development-oriented research to identify new grounds or techniques with commercial fishing or aquaculture potential. Activities have included investigation of clam farming, bait fishing, grouper spawning aggregations, trochus re-seeding and tuna fishing.

The Micronesian Fisheries Authority employs a staff biologist whose main tasks are to analyze catch and effort data of the foreign and domestic fleets and operate the Authority’s onboard observer programme.

The College of Micronesia (COM) in Pohnpei undertakes its own research on inshore fisheries. A resident extension agent seconded from the University of Hawaii Sea Grant Program undertakes some research at the college.

At the state level, inshore fisheries research is undertaken to varying degrees by the relevant government department in charge of marine resources. Most research is undertaken using extra-budgetary funding as governmental budgets do not allow for such activities.

The College of Micronesia offers a two-year Associate Sciences degree in Marine Resources. Higher-level education is generally obtained at overseas institutions.

As regards training, the Fisheries and Maritime Institute (FMI) was established in Yap in 1990 as a private institution but is now a part of COM. The Institute’s current role is training for the existing needs of the fishing sector through the running of skipper, deckhand and marine engineer courses.

The Ponape Agriculture and Technical School (PATS) started a marine program in 1997. This includes instruction in SCUBA and aquaculture operations, including sponge farming, giant clam cultivation, pearl oyster farming and coral fragmentation. The school is equipped with raceways, pumps, small boats and other equipment needed for this purpose.  


FSM’s fisheries aid comes from a variety of sources but Japan is by far the largest donor with numerous infrastructure projects being completed over the years. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Overseas Cooperation Foundation (OFCF) have provided volunteer services as well as training programmes in Japan. Recently JICA has funded ten aquaculture volunteers and a fishery statistician to work with FSM’s state governments, as well as three environmental volunteers. Coastal management training is offered in Japan and an estimated one-third of FSM fisheries personnel have participated in this training. Technical cooperation has included the provision of four technical experts and supporting grant-aid to the Fisheries and Maritime Institute in Yap, as well as support for the extension of fishing ports in Pohnpei and Chuuk, the provision of longline fishing vessels to the FSM Federal Government, and supply of artisanal fishing vessels and support facilities to all four states.  

In recent years, institutional strengthening in the fisheries sector has come mainly from the Asian Development Bank. The Bank has provided seven technical assistance projects and one loan related to fisheries since 1990.

The FSM Development bank administers an Investment Development Fund created by the Compact of Free Association with the United States. Funds can be utilized to finance projects in the private sector requiring US$ 500,000 or more.

Programmes of technical cooperation, collaboration and assistance are maintained with the Governments of Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and through the Compact arrangements with the United States. Other assistance to the fisheries sector has been provided from a range of sources, including FAO, UNDP, USAID, ACIAR, FFA, SPC, and the World Bank.