Line Fishing off Tarawa Island, © Christian Åslund / Greenpeace

We usually refer to them as Pacific Island nations, but territories like Kiribati are more like vast ocean nations. Kiribati (pronounced 'Kirr-i-bas') is a nation of 33 coral atolls and reef islands dispersed over 3.5 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean – greater than the land area of India – whose people are, inevitably, sailors and fishers.

Kiribati has one of the largest exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in the world and boasts one of the most productive tuna fisheries. Over 250,000 tonnes of tuna are caught there each year making it the world's second largest provider of this supermarket staple, after Papua New Guinea. Almost all of that tuna is taken by foreign vessels.

Fishing is essential for income and employment in Kiribati. More importantly for this developing state, beset by poverty and the impacts of climate change, fish is essential for food security. Seafood makes up almost one-third of the average person's diet and provides most of their protein. As coral reef ecosystems become less healthy, that diet is increasingly made up of pelagic fish such as tuna.

Some of the world's smallest and largest fishing boats

The way the locals fish has barely changed in decades. Small crews of three go out daily in wooden boats to supply tuna to local towns and villages. They try to stay within sight of land to avoid becoming lost at sea, which, tragically, sometimes happens. The boats have no GPS, no radar, no back-up engine, and no radio. They carry no ice on board, that would allow them to bring back their catch in a suitable condition for export.

  Local fishing boat Spanish monster boats
Length of boat 5-7 metres Up to 115 metres
Daily Catch Up to 50 tuna a day Up to 200 tonnes of tuna a day
Annual catch In 2008, the entire artisanal tuna fishery of Kiribati caught 12,500 tonnes of tuna A monster boat such as the Spanish Albatun Tres can catch up to 2,000 tonnes of tuna in a single fishing trip.
Fishing method Trawling with a handline (one line, one hook) Purse seine nets with Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs)
Bycatch   Juvenile tuna, sharks, rays and even turtles, especially when FADs are used.

The tiny scale of local fishing is underlined by the sight of giant foreign purse seine vessels ringing the lagoon of the main island, Tarawa. Casting a shadow over these are two Spanish monster boats – some of the biggest tuna fishing vessels in the world. Albatun Tres and Albacora Uno are owned by the largest tuna fishing company in Europe, Albacora. They can catch more in three combined fishing trips than the entire local fleet catches in a year.

Their technological capability is staggering compared to what's available to Kiribati's fishers who rely on reading nature, using skills passed down from father to son. The monster boats are marvels of industrial fishing and globalisation.

These two monster boats are equipped with satellite systems to detect plankton and ocean currents, bird radar to spot schools of fish, and, most destructively, fish aggregating devices (FADs) equipped with sonar and homing beacons. FADs attract vast schools of fish and other marine life, including tuna, and alert the monster boats when it's time to haul in the catch. Fish not worth selling on the international tuna market are thrown back dead into the sea.

Tuna is big business, but to visit Kiribati you wouldn't know it. Kiribati is listed by the United Nations as a least developed country. It has serious problems of poverty, high unemployment and short life expectancy. Last year its gross domestic product was US$169 million for a nation of over 100,000 people.

In the past two years more than US$2 billion worth of tuna was caught in Kiribati waters while only a fraction of this value was returned to the country. The combined revenues of Albacora SA and its subsidiaries were over €475 million in 2012 – yet it has received millions of Euros in EU taxpayer subsidies to build its monster boats and send them to Kiribati.

The deal the EU signed with Kiribati that allows Albacora to fish these productive waters gives little back to the people who have a right to this potentially life-changing resource.

More importantly, it undermines progressive regional attempts by Pacific Island countries to jointly manage their tuna resources for the future and to earn an adequate return.

Until the EU can pay a fair price, it should take its monster boats and go.

Nathaniel Pelle is an Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace Australia Pacific.