Geopolitics: why a divided IOTC once again failed to stick up for tuna

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Conservationists have warned that yellowfin tuna populations in the region could collapse within the decade, if overfishing continues.

Conservationists have warned that yellowfin tuna populations in the region could collapse within the decade, if overfishing continues.

The 26th meeting of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission held in Seychelles ending on May 20, has once again failed to agree on a plan to save collapsing yellowfin tuna stocks in the region. Here is how the deepening geopolitical divide at the IOTC is threatening a key lifeline that Mauritius depends on for a quarter of its exports.

1. The IOTC session

The 26th meeting of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), held in Seychelles over five days until May 20, has once again failed to come up with a plan on how to save collapsing yellowfin tuna stocks in the region. The 30-member IOTC, made up of both coastal fishing states as well as countries running foreign tuna-fishing fleets in the region, has been unsuccessfully grappling with this issue since 2015, when yellowfin tuna was first classified by the IOTC as on the brink of collapse, with conservation groups warning that yellowfin stocks could collapse as soon as 2025. 

Prized in Asian and European seafood markets, yellowfin tuna has been hit hard by overfishing due to growing global demand – in 2019 the global market for canned tuna was a $8.2 billion industry – and improvements in fishing technology that saw soaring catch rates with both foreign and coastal states intensifying fishing in the region. The IOTC Scientific Committee has long warned of overfishing of tuna stock, estimating that in 2020 alone, tuna catch rates were 32 per cent higher than a maximum that could be sustained without triggering a decline in regional tuna populations. To be fished sustainably, the IOTC estimated, the overall tuna catch rate in the region should be capped at 301,000 tonnes – that’s 130,000 tonnes less than what was caught in 2020. 

For Mauritius, the stakes are quite high: tuna exports make up nearly a quarter of the country’s total exports and its canneries directly employ 8,000 people. So even before the IOTC met in Seychelles, the Sustainable Tuna Association (STA) – an industry grouping launched by Princes Tuna and IBL Seafood in November 2021 – was already pushing for the IOTC to take action. “With regard to yellowfin tuna, there is a clear and urgent need for stock rebuilding in line with the IOTC Scientific Committee’s advice for the longterm benefit of all Indian Ocean stakeholders, businesses, our members and the thousands which constitute the workforce of the seafood economy of the country,” the STA said in a statement. Mauritius is officially the world’s ninth largest tuna exporter, and a potential collapse of regional tuna stocks is an existential problem for the industry.

The IOTC has been divided between countries outside the region fishing in the Indian ocean and more assertive coastal states looking to expand their own fishing industries.

2. Geopolitics within the IOTC

One of the problems within the IOTC is that it has been cleaved into blocs in recent years, with each blaming the other for plummeting tuna stock. When in December 2015, the IOTC suddenly announced that regional yellowfin stocks were in the red, necessitating further cuts in fishing quotas for each of the IOTC member states, these fault lines were exposed. Coastal states within the IOTC blamed foreign fleets from Europe (primarily Spanish and French purse seiners) for overfishing in the region, while these states blamed the growing fishing fleets of these coastal states for pushing tuna over the brink. Whereas the IOTC was in the past divided between coastal states, East Asian states and the EU, it is now divided – at least since 2020 - between foreign fleets and a group of coastal states within the region that, eager to develop their own nascent fishing industries, are pushing back hard against any limits on how much tuna they can catch. These divisions played out in different ways regarding different proposals that came before the IOTC at its recent session. First, take the limits proposed on yellowfin tuna catch. 

In 2021, the IOTC came up with an interim plan to allow for the rebuilding of yellowfin tuna stock, based on a proposal from the Maldives, but backed also by the Kenyans, South Africans and Comoros. This included imposing cuts on the amount of tuna both foreign and coastal fishing fleets could catch each year. However, after the resolution was floated, six coastal states – Oman, Iran, India, Madagascar, Indonesia and Somalia – lodged formal objections against it. 

The result was that the IOTC could not impose any cuts on yellowfin tuna fishing. That proposal from 2021 made its way into the recent IOTC session with the Maldives once again proposing a 40 per cent cut on the EU, a 27 per cent cut in coastal states and a 32 per cent cut on the amount small island developing states (such as fishing ships carrying Mauritian and Seychelles flags) could catch. Although Madagascar and Indonesia have changed their position since 2021 and now back the plan, four other coastal states – India, Iran, Oman and Madagascar – dug in their heels and still opposed the plan. Eventually, the Maldives was forced to abandon the proposal. The EU floated the idea of reviewing the findings of the IOTC scientific committee and then setting up a sub-committee which would make proposals for cuts by 2024. This was rejected. 

Yet again, the Maldives proposal which aimed to achieve an overall 22% reduction was not agreed by the IOTC, failing to come up with a plan to protect yellowfin tuna stocks. “This was a disappointing meeting, there could be no science based decision last year either,” says Umair Shahid, the Indian Ocean Tuna lead at the World Wildlife Fund, which itself backed cutting yellowfin overall catch by 30 per cent compared to 2020. “Now it remains to be seen whether this will go into another special session of the IOTC to discuss just yellowfins; we have proposed an arbitration between now and the next IOTC session next year to help bring India, Oman, Iran and Somalia on board with the plan,” he added. 

Skipjack and fads

The logjam is not just limited to yellowfins, but affects IOTC attempts to protect other tuna species – such as skipjack – as well. Regulating the skipjack catch is important because it also has an effect on yellowfins: juvenile yellowfins swim with smaller skipjack tuna. So, when skipjack are caught, more than 90 per cent of the other fish caught with it are juvenile yellowfins. By aggressively overfishing coming generations of yellowfins, it makes it biologically harder for yellowfin populations to recover. “Each year, more skipjack is caught than the maximum allowed by the IOTC,” argues Shahid. 

At the recent session of the IOTC, a proposal to try to control the overfishing of skipjacks was floated but once again the division within the IOTC made itself felt. “The problem is that 92 per cent of all skipjack tuna is caught by just eight or nine states – the EU, Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius, South Korea, India, Iran, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Japan,” says Shahid, “but setting limits on how much skipjack can be caught was resisted by small harvesters.” What regional states such as India, Tanzania and Iran want is that limits should be imposed on those doing most of the current fishing, while they should be allowed to fish more skipjack to help build their own fisheries. On skipjack too, the IOTC could not agree. 

Or, take another question: the regulation of drifting fish aggregating devices (FAD). Here the divisions went the other way. FADs are used mostly by European and East Asian purse seiners to fish for skipjack and this technology is blamed for helping overfish juvenile yellowfins too. Last year, 100 NGOs and European retailers pushed for the IOTC to ban the use of FADs for at least three months each year to slow the rate of overfishing in the Indian Ocean and backed a proposal by Kenya and Sri Lanka to limit the number of FADs that could be deployed by each ship from 300 to 150. 

Since it affected mainly EU purse seiners, coastal states such as Maldives, Mozambique, Pakistan, Somalia, South Africa, Indonesia and Tanzania backed the proposal. While the EU, Japan and South Korea opposed it. The Mauritian state in the past has backed limitations on FAD use, but the industry has opposed blanket bans. The Mauritian fisheries sector relies on tuna supplied by EU fleets to run its canneries and fishing agreements signed with the EU allow only tuna sourced from EU vessels, or those carrying the Mauritian or Seychelles flag, to be exported from Mauritius to Europe. In 2020, there were 42 such ships plying the region: 15 Spanish, 10 French, a single Italian and 13 ships flying the Seychelles and three flying the Mauritian flag. At this session too, Kenya re-floated its proposal to limit FAD use, but since it submitted the proposal 24 minutes after the deadline, it had to eventually withdraw it.

Recent years have seen soaring catches of tuna.

3. EU accused of illegal fishing in Chagos

At the same time as the IOTC was meeting in Seychelles, the meeting was accompanied by another controversy: on the first day of the IOTC session, the conservation group, Blue Marine Foundation, published two reports, one by the group OceanMind and another jointly authored by the Blue Marine Foundation and Kroll that purported to show that the EU was illegally fishing in the waters of coastal states, such as Somalia and India as well as the Chagos Archipelago, which the UN says is Mauritian territory. The report by OceanMind accused Spanish fishing ships of illegally fishing for tuna in the Chagos in 2017 and 2018, French ships in 2017 and 2018; and ships flying the flag of Seychelles (mostly EU-owned fishing ships) in 2017 and 2018 as well. 

The joint report by the Blue Marine Foundation and Kroll went into more detail, accusing Spanish ships of fishing for over 90 hours in Chagossian waters in 2017 and 2018. The allegations in the report were denied by the EU’s fishing industry body, Europêche, in a statement. Although the findings of both reports were not discussed officially at the IOTC session, the data presented in the reports will be parsed over when the IOTC holds an upcoming special session on tropical tuna fish stocks. 

This, however, is not just an EU problem. Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen have routinely been caught straying into the Chagos waters in the past, where the pickings are much richer than in their own waters. And it’s not just fishermen; at present 42 Tamil refugees fleeing Sri Lanka are on hunger strike demanding to be released after they were caught as part of a larger group of 89 refugees currently detained on Diego Garcia after their ship strayed into Chagossian waters back in October last year. 

The EU and coastal states, however, came together to push through a resolution on studying the effects of climate change on the marine ecosystem of the Indian Ocean. “In recent years, we have been talking about the way climate change has been affecting the ecology of the region, for instance, the abundance of certain types of tuna based on increasing numbers of smaller fish they prey on in warming waters,” says Shahid, “or how climate change can affect spawning rates or how tuna migrate from one region to another that can lead to a concentration of tuna in the waters of one state but leave the waters of other states empty; so far these effects have just not been taken into account when it comes to decision-making at the IOTC.” This proposal made by the Maldives was backed by Mauritius, Seychelles, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the EU and France. 

Another geopolitical move made at the IOTC is Mauritius’ attempt to get the IOTC – part of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization – to strip London of its status as a coastal state in the region. The wider UN system recognizes the Chagos as Mauritian territory and Mauritius wants this formalized at the IOTC when it comes to management of regional fisheries. Although this tactic has not met with much success so far, even at the recent IOTC meet although it was discussed, no decision has so far been made – things could be different if Mauritian plans to host the next IOTC session in 2023 come about.

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