The number of GPS-equipped drifting fish aggregating devices (dFADs) now legally permitted in the Indian Ocean is a huge threat to tuna stocks as well as to the populations of sharks and other marine creatures like turtles that also inhabit those waters.
dFADs are deployed into the open ocean to manufacture and attract tuna schools, thereby allowing purse seine vessels to increase their fishing efficiency. These technologically advanced dFADs are equipped with GPS buoys and acoustic devices for estimating the amount of tuna underneath and around them. The position and acoustic information are relayed to the vessel in real-time at frequent intervals.
At the 19th Session of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), held in Busan, Republic of Korea, 27 April-1 May, a resolution was passed allowing purse seine vessels to deploy up to 550 dFADs at any one time to target tuna species. In addition, each vessel is also allowed to purchase a maximum 1,100 dFADs annually to replace malfunctioning or lost units.
To put this new limit into perspective, the Western and central Pacific Ocean purse seine fleet averages around 100 dFADs per vessel per year.
“This decision by the Commission tips the scales even more in favour of the large, industrialised purse seine fleet reliant on dFADS. The smaller, more sustainable operators will find themselves unable to compete on every level,” says Adam Baske, IPNLF’s Policy and Advocacy Advisor.
“Furthermore, the measure will likely exacerbate the situation in the Indian Ocean by allowing for more deployments into the already large and uncontrolled dFAD pool,” says Dr. Shiham Adam, IPNLF Director for Science & the Maldives.
At the most recent meeting of the IOTC Scientific Committee it was stated that at least 10,000 dFADS were being monitored by the EU-purse seiners at any given time in 2013. However, in the two years since, an additional 18 large purse seine vessels have entered the fishery. Assuming the new vessels employ a similar fishing strategy, IPNLF believes the number of dFADs is now in the region of 15,000.
The IPNLF further estimates that under the newly adopted resolution, a total of 57,200 dFADs with GPS-equipped buoys could potentially be deployed in the Indian Ocean in 2015 – an increase of almost 300%. This figure is based on the current purse seine fleet of 52 vessels, each deploying all 1,100 DFADs.
Such an increase would have serious implications for several small-scale fisheries communities in the region, including reduced catches as tuna are artificially concentrated and captured offshore, and increased levels of harmful marine debris in the region. It could also spell the end of naturally occurring schools of skipjack tuna, also called free (unassociated) schools in the Indian Ocean.
Free schools are defined as groups of tuna that are unassociated with floating objects, marine mammals, or whale sharks. The tuna in free schools tend to be larger and bring fishermen a better price, while tuna schools within 5 nautical miles of FADs and large marine animals are generally smaller and mixed with a variety of other marine species. While many fishermen and retailers are seeking sustainable catches from free schools, the availability of free schools in the Indian Ocean could become severely limited due to the newly adopted measure.
Additional consequences of the IOTC’s new resolution could include higher amounts of by-catch of vulnerable marine species, more marine litter, and disruptions in the natural behaviour to tunas as their environment becomes increasingly modified. More dFAD deployments also means more of these devices will be lost or abandoned, becoming ghost nets entangling threatened sea turtles and sharks, or becoming marooned and causing damage to coral reefs.
The IPNLF is also concerned that fishing operations deploying the maximum amount of dFADs permitted by the IOTC will pursue Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification – the eco-label that gives consumers confidence they are buying a sustainably and responsibly harvested product – despite the irresponsible increase of dFADs and the associated impacts on the marine ecosystem. In fact, the Spanish purse seine fishing company Pesquera Echebastar is already seeking the coveted eco-label for the tuna it catches that are not associated with FADs or other floating objects. If successful, its certification would cover the company’s five purse seine vessels in the Indian Ocean, which collectively will be allowed to deploy more than 5,000 dFADs each year. The problem is that there is no way to verify that the catches originate from free schools, and consumers could be misled about the product they are buying.
“Are we meant to bury our heads in the sand and believe that their catch is not the result of FADs when so many dFADs have been deployed? The supply chain needs proof because it would be morally and ethically unacceptable for a purse seiner to be allowed to fish unsustainably for what the market will see as a sustainable product. Such a scenario would defy all logic,” says John Burton, Chairman of the IPNLF.