Delegates from more than 30 countries gathered in Bangkok (21-25 May 2018) to negotiate management measures related to Indian Ocean tuna fisheries at the recently concluded Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) meeting. This is one of the most important tuna fisheries in the world, as it is a source of food, employment, livelihoods and economic earnings for coastal communities and nations alike.
A key theme throughout the week’s talks was deciding how rights over the tuna resources should be divided amongst Commission members. For some of the longstanding industrial fishing fleets, the preference that they should “own” – or have the perpetual right over tuna catches in line with their fleet’s historical catches – was evident. Indeed, the EU tabled a paper outlining its desire for 85% of the future allocation to be based on historical catches – regardless of which waters the fish were caught in.
However, this approach completely ignores the fact that these catches largely came from the waters of the developing coastal states, including the Seychelles, Madagascar, Mozambique and Somalia. These are sovereign states, with very clear rights to the resources within their exclusive economic zones, including the right to allow foreign fishing vessels access to their waters to catch tuna.
Not surprisingly, the majority of the region’s coastal states prefer an alternative approach – one that is in line with international law and their rights. To illustrate the difference, IOTC attendees heard the situation likened to an analogy of an apple orchard owed by a farmer. The farmer owns the land and owns the trees. If the farmer allows somebody to pick apples, and pick those apples year after year, does the apple picker eventually own the trees? Such a notion would obviously be absurd.
In the same vein, the waters of coastal states are rich with tuna, and they have allowed foreign fishing vessels into their zones to catch them year after year. This does not mean that those fishing vessels now own those fish, nor do they own the right to catch those fish year after year. This right remains firmly with the coastal state, as recognised by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
It is unfortunate that the inalienable rights of developing coastal states are often still not widely recognised or supported, and that they have to fend off continued advances from world powers to defend their rights. In a world where there is global support for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, why are some of the world’s most well-developed countries coming to forums like the IOTC to permanently remove the rights and resources from some of the least developed states on the planet?
John Burton, Chairman of the International Pole & Line Foundation (IPNLF), firmly supports the position of the coastal states.
“Without allocation, distant water fishing nations will continue to expand and increase their fishing capacity leaving coastal states far behind. Coastal states are starting to take ownership and lead the conversations on future allocation regimes to ensure their rights and interests are respected,” he states.
While no agreement was reached on future allocation of tuna resources, the coastal states made their standpoint very clear: The approach proposed by the EU will not be accepted in the Indian Ocean. Instead, the scheme that is eventually developed will be guided by the interests of those coastal states in the region whose communities are the most reliant on the resources. The emerging voice of the coastal states, collectively called the G16 at the IOTC, was more coordinated than ever, and IPNLF was proud to support their efforts to work together.
Abdirahim Ibrahim Sheik Heile, from Somalia’s Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources was very encouraged by G16’s efforts over the course of the week.
“G16 members have built their teamwork and leadership from the inside out, and have changed the momentum of fisheries management in the Indian Ocean. Together, we will continue to be creative and practical to advocate for our basic principles so our tuna fisheries can sustain our economies and our communities into the future.”
Along these lines, the IOTC agreed on a proposal to address the dearth of information available on the social and economic aspects of the region’s tuna fisheries. The agreed scoping study is an important first step in the development of equitable management measures for the future that accurately reflect the interests and dependencies of the Indian Ocean coastal states on their tuna fisheries. While the IOTC lacks the budget to undertake this study, independent organisations, including IPNLF, offered financial support to make sure that this critical work moves forward.
After a long week of negotiations, the message from the coastal states in the Indian Ocean is clear: You may have bought our apples in the past, but you do not own our trees!