The role of anchored FADs for coastal tuna fisheries

Adam Baske, IPNLF Policy and Advocacy Advisor, and Dr. Shiham Adam, IPNLF Director of Science and Maldives, explain the differences between the different types of Fish Aggregating Devices and why they matter.
Drifting Fish Aggregating Devices (dFADs) washed up on the beach (c) Adam Baske

There has been much debate about the use of fish aggregating devices (FADs) lately in the marine conservation world.  FADs are basically man-made structures that are either anchored to the bottom or freely drifting in the ocean that are designed to attract fish, primarily tuna.

FADs raise numerous sustainability questions - How many are drifting around the world’s oceans?  What are the cumulative environmental and ecological impacts?  How much marine debris and entanglement of vulnerable marine animals do they cause?  These are all very real concerns that IPNLF shares.  In this vane, we would also like to clarify the role that FADs play in hand-line/pole-and-line fisheries throughout the world, and discuss how coastal anchored FADs are different fishing tools from the drifting FADs deployed by purse-seine vessels fishing far offshore and on the high seas.

Anchored FADs, or aFADs, have been used by coastal fishing communities for centuries to make offshore species, like tunas, more accessible to small fishing boats.  First recorded in the Mediterranean Sea in the 17th century, aFADs were later introduced to the Philippines and Indonesia in the early 1900s. Today, networks of aFADs benefit coastal and artisanal fishermen throughout the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, and Pacific Ocean.  These devices have socio-economic, health, and environmental value for the communities they serve by enhancing food security, increasing employment opportunities, improving safety at sea, protecting vulnerable inshore reef fisheries, and reducing reliance on imported and less healthy protein sources.  In many cases, local people play a role in maintaining and monitoring fishing around specific aFADs, thus building a sense of community ownership and stewardship for these relatively expensive devices.

Specifically for the pole-and-line/hand-line fisheries, aFADs have played a key role in their development. Anchored FAD programmes were introduced in the Pacific Island region in the late 1970s through the development of the pole-and-line fishery for skipjack tuna. Today, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), in collaboration with Pacific Islands Fisheries Departments, has taken a leading role in coordinating FAD initiatives of Pacific Island countries. In the Maldives, the first aFAD was installed in 1981. The results were so positive that the government has continued its support for the programme, and currently it is estimated that more than 60% of the tuna caught in the Maldives comes from aFADs. Currently, a network of approximately 50 aFADs is maintained in the Maldives, with oversight and coordination facilitated by the Fisheries Ministry and Agriculture.

As a stark contrast to the aFAD networks established in coastal countries throughout the world, the drifting FADs, or dFADs, used by large purse-seine vessels have a very singular purpose – to increase catches of skipjack tuna for large-scale processing.  As a fishing tool for such a sizable fishery, their effectiveness cannot be denied.  Almost half of the world’s skipjack tuna is now caught using dFADs, and their use continues to increase in all major tuna fishing grounds.  Whilst estimates of dFAD numbers are imperfect, there are likely more than 100,000 dFADs deployed in the ocean for the sole purpose of attracting tuna each year.  There is limited oversight, and there is little incentive for vessels to maintain or recover their dFADs once they are released into the ocean.  Some purse-seine vessels in the Indian Ocean deploy more than 500 dFADs per year.  This is more than ten times the number of aFADs in the entire network maintained for the Maldives’ whole fishery, and is significantly more than any one purse-seine vessel could ever actually fish on in a given year.

Another major difference between industrial drifting FADs and near-shore anchored FAD fisheries is the scale of bycatch.  Several studies have pointed to the high overall tonnage of bycatch in dFAD fisheries, and this is a major reason for many retailers committing to ‘FAD-free tuna’ in recent years for purse-seine caught fish.  While bycatch can still occur at aFADs, it is minimal when using selective fishing gears like pole-and-line and hand-line, and typically doesn’t affect endangered or threatened species. IPNLF are taking a serious look at catch composition (tuna and bycatch) from selective fisheries around aFADs, and are also running a pilot to help fishermen locate free swimming schools - which may help in targeting bigger tunas and further reducing bycatch. We look forward to sharing the outcomes from our research in the Maldives later this year.

Like anything else, there are dangers of over simplifying the global FAD fishery.  FADs run the gamut from artisanal rafts only used by local communities to high tech drifting fish beacons on the high seas.  In some coastal countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea, aFADs are owned and deployed by purse-seine fishing companies or vessel owners to supply local canneries.  In certain coastal areas, aFADs are used to help collect baitfish, which also need to be sustainably managed.  In other areas, such as Hawaii, the aFAD network is maintained to support recreational and sports fishing operations.

In IPNLF’s view, the deployment of dFADs is under-managed, especially in light of all of the unknowns when it comes to the scale of operations, broader ecosystem impacts, bycatch of vulnerable species, and ghost-fishing entanglements of sharks and turtles in lost or abandoned dFADs.  While there are efforts to start these important discussions with scientists and fisheries managers at the international level in the form of RFMO FAD management plans and working groups, it could be some time before practices are reformed on the water.  There are also opportunities to improve the management, data collection, and monitoring of aFAD fisheries, and IPNLF is looking to do just that with a number of our members.  Since aFADs are used more sparingly and are anchored in nearshore waters, management by a central government or fisheries agency is already in place in many cases.  More importantly – and as highlighted earlier –  aFAD fisheries can provide a suite of benefits to coastal communities, including food security, employment, and the alleviation of fishing pressure on coral reefs threatened by climate change, pollution, and overfishing.

At IPNLF, we are committed to a future where coastal communities, and the fisheries and seas that they depend upon, thrive.  We promote fisheries that use one hook, one line, and bring in one fish at a time, providing socially and environmentally responsible fishing jobs.  Anchored FADs are a means our fishermen use to get this done, and IPNLF looks forward to continuing our work to further strengthen the knowledge and management of these fisheries.