The 27th Session of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) is an important opportunity to demonstrate collaborative and constructive fisheries management to improve the status of tuna stocks in the Indian Ocean through effective conservation and management measures.
The International Pole and Line Foundation (IPNLF) continues to be concerned by the poor condition of the Indian Ocean yellowfin and bigeye tuna stocks. Yellowfin tuna is the second most important IOTC species, but its stock has been overfished and subject to overfishing since 2015. An interim stock rebuilding plan was adopted in 2016, activated in January 2017, revised several times since then, but has so far proven to be ineffective. A precautionary approach should have driven IOTC contracting parties to significantly reduce their fishing pressure in this situation, but catches actually increased by over 10% between 2014 and 2019. Recently, the region’s bigeye tuna stock has also been assessed as overfished and subject to overfishing. The consequences of the still declining state of this stock are felt most acutely by communities in developing coastal states.
While many CPCs have maintained reduction targets stipulated in the rebuilding plan, some CPCs have not complied. Some of these CPCs have objected to the measures, while others have changed their fishing strategies, leading to increased harvests of juvenile tuna at the cost of stock productivity. The most recent stock assessment showed that the yellowfin stock is still under intense fishing pressure, it is still overfished and it remains subject to continued overfishing. A substantial catch reduction of at least 30% from 2020 levels (capping catches at 301,700 tonnes) is now essential to recover the Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna stock within a reasonable timeframe of two generations (about 15 years). It is imperative that the Commission implement appropriate limits on these catches, which will require cooperative action by all IOTC members, especially among nations taking the largest and most damaging harvests.
We urge the IOTC to take into account the downfalls of previous approaches which have featured a lack of precaution or suitable consideration of stock productivity and longevity limitations. At minimum, the Commission should follow the latest advice from the IOTC Scientific Committee on at least 30% catch reduction, and ensure harvest reductions are fairly allocated in accordance with the historic and current relative stock and habitat damage caused by different nations’ fleets.
Both yellowfin and bigeye tuna stocks are overfished and subject to overfishing in the Indian Ocean. To rebuild these stocks, it is important that their reproductive potential is no longer compromised by excessive juvenile harvests and to give time for age-classes to mature into spawning adults. All FADs contribute to juvenile harvest of bigeye and yellowfin tuna. However, drifting FADs and anchored FADs are not comparable in scale of use, design, pollution contribution, ghost fishing threat, and the threats they pose to the food security and livelihoods of coastal communities.
Drifting FADs pose a significant threat to these stocks’ reproductive potential and productivity; up to 97% of the yellowfin tuna and almost 100% of bigeye tuna harvested by industrial purse seine fleets around drifting FADs are juveniles (IOTC nominal catch and size data sets). By preventing millions of tuna from reproducing before being harvested, dFAD fishing severely limits the productivity of stocks, and upon the relative yield each fish provides for food security, nutrition and trade.
Lacking scientific advice has been increasingly suggested to be a barrier to effective FAD management, but a major reason for this is the lack of data being submitted to the Secretariat for further analysis by the Scientific Committee. Backlogs in dFAD data submission date back as far as 2015. Despite these growing claims within the IOTC, there is also no process available, globally, that scientifically defines the duration and spatial scope required for a FAD Closure. Of course the longer the duration and the wider its area of scope, the more it will protect the stock from FAD impacts. It is also important to note that all RFMO’s apply a suite of complementary management measures that collectively support maintenance of healthy stocks and fisheries. There is no scientific process to explicitly define the relative benefit provided by any single measure within the suite of options applied across any RFMO globally. Considering the above, the IOTC also has an obligation to take a precautionary approach when scientific data and advice is not available, and a lack of scientific information should never be used as a means of delaying the logical application of required conservation measures. This is especially true when considering the concerning states of yellowfin and bigeye tuna stocks in the Indian Ocean, from which dFADs primarily drive juvenile harvests to cause disproportionate stock degradation.
Current arguments against the adopted 72-day FAD closure, which may be adjusted based on scientific advice received within this year, hinge upon a claimed lack of current scientific advice on how this might benefit the stock. However, ocean-wide dFAD closures have been adopted in all other tuna regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) as precautionary measures, due to shared clear scientific understanding about stock conditions and levels of juvenile harvest. These measures are supporting the health and even rebuilding of tuna stocks in other regions, but are somehow being firmly opposed in the Indian Ocean. For example, in the Atlantic Ocean, ICCAT Recommendation 21/01, which was originally endorsed in 2019, applied a 72-day oceanwide dFAD closure which is considered an important contributor to halting the overfishing of Atlantic bigeye tuna since 2019 in that ocean. Noting the above concerns and encouraging global precedents, we call on the IOTC to maintain the principle of the oceanwide FAD Closure and other measures of Resolution 23/02, as adopted by majority vote during the Sixth Special Session of the IOTC.
Whenever possible RFMO decisions should be made by consensus in order to give fishing regulations strength and the highest chance of successful implementation. This means that all parties should be willing to make some compromise, while measures adopted by majority votes should also be respected. IPNLF are concerned by the number of objections received in recent years to measures on both yellowfin tuna stock rebuilding and FAD management. To ensure the long term future of IOTC fisheries it is important that they are well managed, while objections directly undermine management and put the future of the stocks and associated ecosystems at risk.
As a general principle, IPNLF urges all IOTC members to cooperate more effectively and to not use objections to undermine the effective management of Indian Ocean tuna and tuna-like resources or their associated environments.