Evidence of unauthorised fishing by EU vessels in Indian Ocean coastal states’ waters

May 20, 2022


A set of reports published by Blue Marine Foundation and OceanMind have revealed evidence of unauthorised fishing on the part of EU vessels in the waters of several developing Indian Ocean coastal states.  The reports – one undertaken by OceanMind and the other by Blue Marine and Kroll – highlight fishing activity on the part of EU-owned purse seine vessels in the waters of Somalia and India with no evidence of access agreements authorising the fishing.  The report also highlights fishing effort in the Chagos Archipelago marine protected area and in Mozambique’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) where no vessels flagged to any EU country could have been authorised to fish.

The publication of the reports coincides with the start of the 26th Session of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) in Seychelles, where members of the regional fisheries management organisation are meeting to discuss new conservation and management measures for the region and its fish stocks.  One such stock is Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna which has been overfished since 2015.  Years of rampant overfishing has resulted in catches of yellowfin tuna now needing to be reduced by almost a third in order for the stock to recover by 2030.  Despite this, the region’s most rapacious yellowfin harvester – the EU – is proposing that no further catch reductions be made this year, contrary to scientific advice.

In addition to the EU’s so-called Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreements (SFPAs), which subsidise EU vessels to fish in the waters of third countries (often at a fraction of what it would otherwise cost), there also exist opaque and highly controversial private access agreements made between fishing companies and coastal state governments.  Blue Marine, together with global investigations firm Kroll, has compared the fishing activity identified by OceanMind in the territorial waters of coastal states to an analysis of the access agreements (both public and private) that exist in the Western Indian Ocean.

This comparison has highlighted potential noncompliance with national and international regulations by Spanish-owned vessels which appear to have spent time fishing in the waters of both India and Somalia without authorisation.  A source close to the Indian Head of Delegation confirmed that no permissions or licences were issued to any Spanish-flagged purse seine vessels.  Another source with links to the Somali ministry of fisheries confirmed that no licences or permissions were granted to any purse seine vessels to operate in the Somali EEZ in 2017, 2018, 2019 or 2020, when fishing was identified.  The generally opaque nature of access agreements raises additional questions around the compliance of these EU-owned fleets in the waters of several other coastal states, including Mozambique where no private agreements could have been legally issued because of the dormant SFPA in place.

Charles Clover, Executive Director of Blue Marine Foundation, said: “The report showing the locations of EU vessels is based on the findings of a study commissioned by Blue Marine Foundation and undertaken by OceanMind – a highly reputable organisation – which in turn was based on publicly-available data reported by the EU and published by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission on its website. This data shows, for example, evidence of fishing on the part of vessels flagged to Spain in the waters of Somalia (in 2017 and 2018) and India (2018 and 2019). Europeche, see link below, claims that ‘No fishing took place from EU vessels in any coastal state waters without agreement in place.’ We would like to request that Europeche shares with us the access agreements that were in place with Somalia and India when this fishing activity was reported by the EU. There is evidence to suggest that some of these fleets are fishing in coastal states’ waters without any kind of authorisation and we call on the European Commission to investigate these instances as a matter of urgency.”

In addition to analysing reported fishing catch and effort in and around the boundaries of coastal states’ EEZs, the report also highlights widespread noncompliance with the regulations that govern the use of the Automatic Identification System (AIS) – an important safety tool that transmits a ship’s position.  The report explains that Spanish-flagged purse seine vessels operating in the Western Indian Ocean “went dark” by switching off their AIS for an average of almost three quarters of the two-year study period.  Importantly, the study found that significant fishing activity was undertaken without the associated use of AIS.  This comes just weeks after an admission from a representative of prominent Spanish fishing association, AGAC, that AIS could indeed be switched off for commercial advantage.  In addition to being inconsistent with EU law, going dark for commercial advantage also jeopardises crew safety.

This noncompliance with national and international law is taking place against the backdrop of relentless overfishing of tuna in the Indian Ocean, with the EU’s fleet being the number-one harvester of the overfished yellowfin stock.  Given that the three species of tropical tuna are caught together by these industrial vessels, bigeye tuna is also now also subject to overfishing and even skipjack – the most abundant of the major commercial tuna species – has had its catch limit ignored for the last three years.

Jess Rattle, Head of Investigations at Blue Marine Foundation, said: “Decision makers must be led by science at this week’s meeting of the IOTC, rather than by greed, self-interest and short-term gain at the expense of the health of tuna stocks and the livelihoods and food security of coastal communities.  We also need stricter compliance with existing laws and regulations, such as those pertaining to AIS use, and for the details of private access agreements to be made fully transparent and publicly accessible.”

A statement from Europêche, a European organisation of shipowners, fishermen and employers, can be read here.

Cover image: Alex Hofford/Greenpeace

This article was updated on 15/08/2022 to reflect minor changes made throughout both reports due to a coding error used to process the raw dataset for analysis which caused incorrect calculations around catch and effort numbers to appear within the OceanMind report. This has not changed the conclusions drawn by OceanMind and reported by Blue Marine, but the data and reports have nevertheless been updated.

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