Statement on the failure of the IOTC Special Session

March 12, 2021 by Blue Marine Foundation


Blue Marine Foundation rebukes the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) and many of its member states for their inaction at the Special Session of the Commission this week.  The IOTC Special Session, held to solve the problem of the ongoing overfishing of yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean, has ended without the adoption of an updated rebuilding plan for the stock which has been overfished since 2015.  Instead, the decision has been delayed, yet again, until the next meeting of the IOTC in June, while more data is collected.

Blue Marine Foundation was bitterly disappointed to witness deliberations over the past five days in which some IOTC members, and the European Union in particular, pushed to maintain the status quo at the expense of the conservation of the stock which, scientists say, could collapse within the next five years.  This inaction was facilitated by the recent failure of the IOTC Scientific Committee to provide timely, responsible management advice.

Despite acknowledging that the stock was overfished and that the biomass was well below that which would allow for a maximum sustainable yield (MSY), the Scientific Committee nonetheless called on IOTC member states at the Special Session to cut catches to a level “at least below” 403,000 tonnes.  For a stock that is overfished and subject to continued overfishing, this advice was not only insufficient but also irresponsible, as it would not solve or reduce the overfished status of yellowfin but merely maintain it.

While the Chair of the Scientific Committee pointed to the failure of the scientific model as the reason for the absence of adequate management advice, a lack of data cannot be used as an excuse for inaction, as the precautionary approach, adopted by the IOTC in 2012, should have been at the forefront of the advice issued by the Scientific Committee in advance of the Special Session.

Charles Clover, Executive Director of Blue Marine Foundation, said: “The astounding selfishness of the EU and other industrial distant water fleets is rivalled only by the failures of the IOTC’s own Scientific Committee who gave them an excuse for inaction on a silver platter.  We have seen this time and time again – from cod in Newfoundland to bluefin tuna in the Atlantic and Mediterranean – we cannot continue to fish at unsustainable levels while we wait for better science which may never arrive or could arrive far too late to save the stock or the coastal communities that depend on it for their very survival.”

In a further display of incoherence, the Scientific Committee released a new catch dataset shortly after the publication of this already questionable management advice, showing a significant increase in catches of yellowfin tuna over several years, which suggests that the real status of the stock could be even worse than previously anticipated.

It was nonetheless the responsibility of IOTC member states to address the unchecked overfishing of this globally important stock by adopting an improved interim plan to reduce the fishing pressure on yellowfin tuna.  At the outset of the meeting, there was hope that this would be achieved, thanks to an ambitious and equitable proposal put forward by Maldives.  This proposal, which would have brought about a 15 per cent reduction from the 2015 baseline and a responsible catch limit of 346,438 tonnes, was supported by several other coastal states, with the UK suggesting that a cut of 15-20 per cent could be explored.

However, any hope of adopting a sustainable catch limit was eliminated early in the Session by the total and absolute refusal of the European Union to compromise on its own disgracefully high catch limit.  The EU, defending its distant water purse seine fleet – by far the largest harvester of yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean – was not moved by pleas from several coastal states, such as that of Maldives delegation who expressed in desperation and sadness that “This is not a negotiation – this is political greed”.

Jess Rattle, Head of Investigations at Blue Marine Foundation, said: “We are appalled by the tactics of the European Union which has abandoned common sense, empathy and the precautionary approach in favour of neo-colonialism, hypocrisy and greed.  We heard coastal states describe their fears of social and economic ruin should the stock collapse, heard the Maldives beg other members to act now while there is still time, heard Kenya admonish the EU, Korea and Japan for their unwillingness to reduce their use of drifting FADs to save the juvenile yellowfin – all of which fell on the deaf ears of developed, distant water fishing nations and their local flag states of convenience.”

Blue Marine Foundation emphasises its bitter disappointment with the lack of outcomes and the unwillingness of IOTC members to sufficiently compromise on the tabled proposals.  We feel strongly that there should not be a further delay in setting catch reductions, as it is already clear that the stock is overfished and more data will not change this fact.  The situation demands serious and comprehensive action – a responsible stock recovery plan that fully implements the precautionary approach must be adopted at the June meeting of the IOTC.

Blue Marine Foundation will be writing to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, which is ultimately responsible for the IOTC, to ask for it to intervene to improve the procedures of the IOTC and its Scientific Committee.


Cover image: Alex Hofford / Greenpeace

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