Regional Indian Ocean states, led by Kenya, are requesting a special session of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission this month to push through limits on the use of fish aggregating devices by foreign industrial fishing fleets, that conservationists argue are leading to a decimation of yellowfin tuna stocks. While the commission is wracked by wrangling between regional states and foreign fishing fleets, countries such as Mauritius and Seychelles are finding it difficult to take a position.
1..Why the special session?
A GROUP of regional states, led by Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania and Bangladesh, are demanding that the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) host a special session this month to push a proposal by Kenya, backed by Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mozambique, Pakistan, Somalia, South Africa, Indonesia and Tanzania, to limit the use of fish aggregating devices (FADs) by foreign industrial fishing fleets to catch tuna in the Indian Ocean. The proposal put forward by these states limits the number of FADs that each ship can use to 150 (from the current limit of 300) and includes a temporary ban on the use of such FADs during spawning times for yellowfin tuna.
FADs are devices used by industrial purse seine ships. These are basically structures left floating on the ocean to take advantage of the instinct of certain tuna species to congregate to floating debris so ships can simply attract and then scoop up fish rather than chase schools of tuna. These devices are mostly used by EU and Asian fishing fleets in the Indian Ocean and have been blamed by conservation groups for helping to decimate stocks of yellowfin tuna in the region. Although FADs are used to catch mostly skipjack tuna, they also end up netting juvenile yellowfin tuna, which school with skipjacks while still young and end up getting caught before they have reached reproductive age, threatening the future of yellowfin stocks in the region.
According to estimates from conservation groups, up to 25 percent of fish caught using FADs are species other than skipjack, with a report from the Blue Marine Foundation estimating that as much as 97 percent of this bycatch is actually made up of juvenile yellowfins, already overfished and threatened with population collapse by 2025. As early as 2006, the IOTC started sounding the alarm about the use of FADs and their effect on the future of yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean.
The reason these regional states are up in arms is because of wrangling at the 25th IOTC session held in June that pitted these regional states against foreign fishing fleets over FAD use. Due to Covid-19, the session was held virtually over Zoom, which significantly complicated matters.
When these regional states led by Kenya made the proposal to cut down FAD use from 300 to 150 per fishing vessel, this set them against the EU, Japan and South Korea, all of which fish extensively in the Indian Ocean for tuna. Normally, motions at the IOTC require two-thirds of its members to vote for it to pass, voting by their delegates raising their hands. However, at the June session held virtually, a number of issues cropped up: firstly whether Iran – who was not up to date with paying dues to the IOTC – should be allowed to vote. It was. Secondly, whether voting online should be held by secret ballot. Regional states opposed this to prevent countries operating large fishing fleets from pressuring countries to switch their votes. It was held secretly. When the vote was finally carried out, out of 19 votes cast by IOTC member-states, 12 regional states backed the proposal to limit FAD use by foreign fishing fleets, five states opposed it, while two abstained. The issue now became whether the two abstentions should be counted in the finally vote tally or not – if it was, then the two-thirds needed was not achieved and the proposal by the regional states did not pass; whereas if these were not counted, then the proposal would have passed and the IOTC would have no choice but to set limits on FAD use by EU and Asian fishing fleets in the Indian Ocean.
The issue was referred to the legal office of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). On September 8, the FAO’s legal team returned with its advice: “... only votes in favour or against a proposal are to be counted for the purpose of determining a majority. Abstentions are not counted.” Thus, according to the FAO, the proposal on limiting FAD use by regional states technically passed. “The resolution was going to be adopted,” Umair Shahid, Indian Ocean Tuna Manager for the WWF, tells l’express, “this is why regional states are asking for a special session now, they will try to push through that resolution.”
3.Mauritius and Seychelles caught in the middle
The split within the IOTC puts states like Mauritius and Seychelles in a difficult position. Most of the regional states pushing for limits on FAD use are not major tuna exporters and fish mostly for local consumption. Mauritius and Seychelles, on the other hand, host major tuna-processing factories and are major players in tuna exports from the Indian Ocean. Both are dependent on supplies of tuna caught both by European fishing fleets using FADs, as well as primarily French and Spanish fishing ships using the Mauritian and Seychellois flags to keep their canneries humming. In the case of Mauritius, tuna makes up as much as a quarter of its exports, according to the Mauritius Exporters Association. This is a position that has been recognized by the industry within Mauritius. Ahead of the IOTC session in June, a joint memo by Princes Tuna and IBL states, “there is a deep division within the commission with the Indian Ocean Coastal states on one side, and the distant-water fishing nations on the other. Mauritius encompasses both interests: as a coastal nation but having a processing industry that depends on DWFN for its supply.” What this means is that aside from the danger of col- lapsing yellowfin tuna stocks in the region – Princes has committed itself to slashing the amount of tuna it processes from the Indian Ocean by 50 percent by 2022 to help stocks in the region recover – both Mauritius and Seychelles are also susceptible to pressure from major tuna export markets and finding it harder to walk the tightrope splitting the IOTC apart.
For example, when the use of FADs came up for discussion in June, “Mauritius was the only country to talk about pressure from retailers and NGOs, but at the same time ended up backing a proposal from the EU to refer the question of FAD use to an ad-hoc IOTC working group rather than voting on the proposal from the regional states,” says Shahid, “while the Seychelles came up with a middle of the road proposal, asking for FADs to be limited to between 200 and 250 per ship, above the 150 proposed by the regional states led by Kenya.” The irony is that in the past, 2014 to be precise, Mauritius proposed a temporary freeze on FAD use, which was not voted in, while in 2016, Seychelles co-sponsored another motion at the IOTC that ended up setting FAD use to its current limit of 300 per ship.
But both states are finding it harder to ignore the damage that FADs are causing, putting pressure on their juggling act within the IOTC. This year, for example, 100 NGOs, conservation groups and retailers, including Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and Edeka, backed the Kenyan proposal to limit the use of FADs and ban the use of FADs by EU and Asian fishing ships for three months each year between July and September. This is in addition to an earlier boycott of tuna caught in the Indian Ocean by other retailers such as Tesco, Coop and Colruyt. Mauritius cannot ignore these customers at its own peril. While Seychelles is actually facing a growing ecological problem as well with discarded FADs washing up on its beaches, getting tangled on its coral reefs and killing marine life there. In a report prepared for the IOTC in 2015, it was estimated that as much as 76 percent of such discarded FADs washing up on its beach- es and its coral reefs were from Spanish fishing ships, counting ships both flying Spanish and Seychellois flags.
4. The Indian Ocean and the Pacific
THE split within the IOTC pitting regional states against EU and Asian fishing fleets accused of plundering its tuna stocks and the inability of small islands such as Mauritius and Seychelles to come up with a concrete position of their own within the IOTC makes the Indian Ocean the worst regulated tuna-fishing area globally. And the failure of Mauritius and Seychelles – 12.5 percent of tuna caught in the Indian Ocean are caught in their waters or by vessels flying their flag – to coordinate and better control foreign fishing fleets within their own waters, contrasts with successes of other small island states elsewhere.
Take the small island states in the Pacific, for example. Eight island states scattered between the Philippines and Ha- waii – Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands – collectively control a maritime zone one and a half times the size of the United States that also happens to be one of the richest tuna fishing grounds in the world. So in 2011, these Pacific small island states got together and came up with an agreement that was dubbed the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA).
According to this pact, the island states collectively de- cided to charge foreign fishing ships $8,000 a day to fish in their waters. They also faced the same problem that the Indian Ocean regional states are facing: the use of FADs in the Pacific saw juvenile stocks of bigeye tuna being caught along with skipjack, threatening bigeye populations. So, the PNA banned the use of FADs by foreign fishing fleets in the waters of these island states for three months each year to allow bigeye stocks to recover. That is quite similar to what the Kenya-led bloc of regional states is now proposing for the Indian Ocean as well.
The result is what it has been hailed as one of the best managed tuna fishing grounds in the world. The eight small island states saw revenue from foreign tuna ships grow from $50 million in 2010 – before the eight island states came up with the PNA – to $500 million in 2020. At the same time, the strictly enforced restrictions on FAD use are credited for preventing the collapse of bigeye tuna populations in the Pacific from overfishing. What was the most interesting about this was that it was not big states that imposed it, but eight small island states, individually poor and weak, but collectively able to impose such conditions on fishing fleets from much richer and powerful countries.
The contrast between the successes in the Pacific Ocean and the dysfunction in the Indian Ocean could not be starker. Nor the ability of Pacific small island states to come together and agree on a model to manage their own waters, as opposed to the failure of Indian Ocean small island states, such as Mauritius, to do the same. As the question of FAD use by foreign fleets once again comes up at the IOTC, it remains to be seen whether states such as Mauritius are finally able to look at their own longer-term interests, or whether they will continue to try to ineffectually remain noncommittal putting the future of yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean – and its own significant tuna export industry at risk.