Improved management still urgently required to rebuild yellowfin tuna to a sustainable level. Indian Ocean drifting FAD numbers remain too high. More work needed to provide independent verification of drifting FAD data.

The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission’s (IOTC) 23rd Annual Meeting concluded on Friday 21 June 2019 with the ratification of a few modest management decisions, but the International Pole & Line Foundation (IPNLF) maintains that the sustainability agenda could have been progressed much further, and is particularly disappointed that the opportunity wasn’t taken to end the overfishing of the region’s yellowfin resource. Furthermore, while a cutback in the number of drifting fish aggregating devices (dFADs) allowed in the convention area was agreed, the reduction was far less than advocated for, and the monitoring tools being put in place make it impossible to verify whether the limit is being met or indeed exceeded.

The 32 Member States that make up the IOTC gathered in Hyderabad, India, between 17 and 21 June, to try to solve pressing fishery management issues in the Indian Ocean, including the longstanding and high-profile issue of yellowfin tuna overfishing. Other key discussions were supposed to focus on further progressing the allocation process, improving the management of drifting fish aggregating devices (dFADs), and ray conservation.

While a proposal was endorsed for all vessels operating in the IOTC convention area to retain on board any manta and mobula rays, and there was some first progress towards meaningful monitoring and control of FADs, as well as the adoption of an improved but compromised management plan to rebuild Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna, ultimately the new conservation measures that were agreed upon for the tuna species are not ambitious enough to reduce current overfishing.

Covering some 70 million square kilometres, the Indian Ocean is one of the world’s most economically important fishing areas. While it accounts for approximately 20% of the world’s tuna production, the long-term sustainability of the region’s tuna stocks, particularly its yellowfin resource, are increasingly being called into question. Ahead of this year’s meeting, IPNLF and others were urging the IOTC’s Members to adopt a rebuilding plan that would enable the yellowfin stock to recover by 2024. Other important issues IPNLF focused on was the need to continue the development of harvest strategies, a more equitable catch allocation process that recognises the legitimate rights of the region’s developing coastal states, stronger FAD management, and improved monitoring and data collection.

“While it’s true that IOTC covered some important ground in Hyderabad, and we of course welcome that progress, the overfishing of yellowfin tuna remains the elephant in the room. It’s critical that the Indian Ocean quickly gets a robust framework of management measures in place to provide long-term protection for this globally important resource. Without such tools in the convention area, how can we hope to provide the social and economic security that this region’s developing but vulnerable coastal states need?” says Martin Purves, Managing Director of IPNLF.

Unfortunately, there was also little movement with regards to the equitable allocation of the region’s tuna resource. Although the expectation is that the G16 Group of Like-minded Coastal States will make crucial progress at the 6th meeting of the Technical Committee on Allocation Criteria in Bangkok in early 2020, hopefully leading to a proposal on allocation that can be adopted at the Commission meeting later that year. The international legal framework for fisheries governance requires that conservation and management measures for transboundary fish stocks do not place a disproportionate burden on developing states and this concept, which is already part of the discourse at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), received increasing recognition at IOTC where Members were urged to ensure that measures do not result in transferring a disproportionate burden of conservation action onto developing coastal states.

One of the meeting’s key outcomes was the adoption of measures to reduce FAD numbers to 300. But with the widespread use of dFADs by industrial purse-seine fishing vessels identified as a major contributor to yellowfin overfishing and other problems, including ghost fishing and marine litter, IPNLF was among those leading the call for a more sizeable reduction to be made.

There will also be increased monitoring and data collection – provided by GPS buoys attached to dFADs. Most of these buoys contain sophisticated sonar devices that can remotely share the amount of tuna and even species that are located under a FAD. Again, the Resolution that was adopted by IOTC was far less ambitious than the one initially proposed by the Maldives and South Africa. Consequently, the onus has been put on self-reporting, rather than the heightened levels of transparency that could be delivered through independent verification of FAD movements and numbers.

Dr Shiham Adam, Head of the Maldives’ delegation, explains, “As we develop a better understanding of buoy dynamics and use, the intent of our proposed language on FAD management was to ensure that limits on the number of FADs – which we now refer to as ‘operational buoys’ – actually meet the intended conservation and management outcomes. Unfortunately, in the heat of the negotiations, the language was diluted in such a manner that it now allows for self-reporting and misses key data requirements to be able to actually monitor whether operational buoys are not remotely activated or muted. This means purse seine operators can still work around the limits we have established, which of course is very disappointing. Nevertheless, we feel an important step forward has been made by recognising the need of FAD tracking in the newly-adopted Resolution, which is more ambitious than in any of the other tuna RFMOs.”

At the meeting, IOTC also made it mandatory to have completely non-entangling designs for FADs to reduce the possibility of catching non-targeted species. Furthermore, as of 2022, all FADs will have to be made of biodegradable material.