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IOTC takes step back on yellowfin tuna recovery plan

January 29, 2021

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The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) has today issued management advice that could allow the overfishing of yellowfin tuna to continue until 2023, despite evidence that the overfished stock could collapse within the next five years.  This comes just months after several major retailers including Tesco, Co-op and Belgian market leaders Colruyt decided to boycott Indian Ocean tuna if the IOTC failed to curb the overfishing of the stock listed as “near threatened” on the IUCN Red List.

IOTC member states agreed in November 2020 to hold an emergency meeting in March 2021 to deal with the continued overfishing of yellowfin tuna and the inadequacies of the current stock rebuilding plan.  However, advice issued today by the IOTC’s own Scientific Committee appears to contradict this plan by recanting existing management advice and calling on member states to essentially maintain the status quo until a new stock assessment can be undertaken later this year.  This advice was issued despite the Chair of the Scientific Committee stating at the Commission meeting in November that “no new advice on yellowfin tuna will be available until after the Scientific Committee meeting in December 2021”, raising questions around the motivation behind the unexpected announcement.

The new report states that “subsequent investigation has shown some critical errors in the projections” of the most recent yellowfin tuna stock assessment carried out in 2018, making it “not suitable for use to provide management advice”. This means that, instead of aiming for a 20 per cent catch reduction from 2017’s yellowfin catch total (as recommended by the 2018 stock assessment) and a subsequent new catch total of 327,654 MT, IOTC member states will, at best, have to revert back to much older management advice that suggests only a 15 per cent cut is needed from 2015’s baseline – presenting a new catch total of 346,438 MT.

However, the new IOTC report presents an even greater threat to the health of the already-overfished stock by stating in its “management advice” section that “it is recommended that catches be reduced to a level at least below the CMSY estimate (403, 000 MT) from the 2018 assessment until new information based on the 2021 stock assessment and its associated projections are carried out.”  Immediately after this statement, however, the report acknowledges that the catch total on which the 2018 stock assessment was based was 20 per cent above the target.  It also acknowledges that total catches of yellowfin in 2019 increased by 5 per cent from 2014 levels, despite the stock rebuilding plan having been in place since 2016.

If followed, this advice will see no improvement (and possible deterioration) in the management of the globally important stock for two years. The new stock assessment will only be available towards the end of 2021, meaning that IOTC member states would need to wait until the next annual Commission meeting in 2022 to adopt a new management measure with updated catch limits. Assuming the new stock assessment is not deemed inconclusive and unsuitable like the last, the new management measures resulting from it would only be implemented on the water in 2023.  For a stock that is at risk of collapse, this delay could prove catastrophic.

It could also prove disproportionately catastrophic for Indian Ocean coastal states which, unlike industrial distant water fleets, cannot simply shift their fishing efforts to a different ocean.  Healthy tuna stocks are essential to the social and economic wellbeing of many coastal states, several of which, like the Maldives, have been adhering to the current, albeit ineffective, stock rebuilding plan. Should a new rebuilding plan not be agreed at the emergency IOTC meeting in March, it is possible that other retailers and processors could join the call for a blanket boycott of all Indian Ocean tuna, to the detriment on coastal states’ economies that rely heavily on tuna exports.

Charles Clover, Executive Director of Blue Marine Foundation said: “If the IOTC cannot get its scientific models to function properly, then the answer is to adhere to the precautionary principle and reduce yellowfin catches, not to simply maintain the status quo that got us into this situation until more potentially flawed science can be carried out. What if the same ‘critical errors’ make this year’s assessment unusable – does the IOTC just plan to kick the can down the road until the stock collapses? We hope that responsible IOTC states will not allow the Scientific Committee’s incompetence to stop them from adopting a responsible and equitable recovery plan for yellowfin tuna at the special session in March.”

BLUE will be publishing its recommendation for IOTC member states in advance of the March meeting.

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