The Blue Marine Foundation condemns in the strongest possible terms the unprecedented and irresponsible objection lodged by the European Union to an essential conservation measure recently adopted in the Indian Ocean to combat the region’s chronic overfishing of tuna stocks. The controversial objection exempts the EU’s entire industrial purse seine fleet from new rules introduced to curb the use of harmful drifting fish aggregating devices (FADs) – a type of fishing gear used by the EU fleet to catch juvenile tuna in their millions.
The last meeting of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) – a special session held just to discuss FADs – concluded on 5 February 2023 in Mombasa, Kenya, with the adoption of the important and much-celebrated Resolution 23/02 to improve the management of drifting FADs used by industrial tuna purse seine vessels, chiefly those flagged to Spain, France, Mauritius and Seychelles, to attract tuna.
IOTC Resolution 23/02 – which was originally submitted by Kenya before the country’s shock decision to withdraw its support – will come into effect on 1 January 2024 for those countries that have not objected to it, and it includes a phased reduction in the number of drifting FADs permitted per vessel. It was put forward by Indonesia and 10 other Indian Ocean coastal states and was adopted by a two-thirds majority following a vote by secret ballot in the final hours of the meeting, in line with the IOTC rules of procedure.
Against the wishes of this two-thirds majority, the EU announced its objection to the Resolution this week, suggesting that the Resolution would result in “a gradual phasing out of DFADs”, despite this having been shown by Indonesia to be incorrect. The EU also cited the Resolution’s 72-day drifting FAD closure as a reason for its objection, despite the fact that FAD closure periods are already in place in three other regional fisheries management organisations in other oceans with far healthier tuna stocks than those in the Indian Ocean.
The Resolution also instructs the IOTC’s Scientific Committee to recommend appropriate drifting FAD management measures based on credible science before the end of 2023. Following the precautionary approach, a 72-day drifting FAD closure will automatically come into effect in 2024 for all non-objecting fleets, unless credible science produced by the Scientific Committee shows that this approach will not help to rebuild stocks.
Both yellowfin tuna and bigeye tuna are overfished in the Indian Ocean, and a very high proportion of these tunas – 97% in the case of yellowfin – when caught by purse seine vessels around these controversial drifting FADs in the region, are juveniles, further impacting the health of the stocks.
Jess Rattle, Head of Investigations at Blue Marine Foundation, said: “Earlier this year, we saw delegations from across the world work together at the UN Intergovernmental Conference to protect biodiversity on the high seas for the benefit of all humankind. However, after just a few weeks, the EU has entirely abandoned this sentiment in favour of plundering the Indian Ocean’s already overfished stocks, safe in the knowledge that, once all the fish are gone, its highly developed fleet can simply move to another ocean, unlike the many coastal states that will be left behind with nothing”.
Professor Callum Roberts, Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of Exeter, said: “Drifting FADs take advantage of the natural tendency of juvenile fish to group together for safety below floating objects, making it easy for the EU’s industrial purse seine fleet to catch them in their millions, long before they’ve had a chance to reproduce; no wonder the Indian Ocean’s tuna stocks are in crisis. The EU should be banning this destructive fishing method, not objecting to internationally-agreed improvements to its management.”
Frédéric Le Manach, Scientific Director of Bloom, said: “In lodging this unjustifiable objection, the EU is supporting a technological war against fish and livelihoods. It is also exerting an intolerable neo-colonial pressure on stakeholders through a bargain on development aid. This is moral corruption red-handed, as the spectacular turn-around of countries from the Global South in this matter oozes out the corrupt domination of the North. The EU Commission should be taken to court on this.”
By objecting to the Resolution, the EU’s vast distant-water fleet would is not bound by the improved management measures put in place to save the Indian Ocean’s tuna stocks from further decline, thereby undermining the effectiveness of the resolution and the IOTC as a whole.
Martin Purves, Managing Director of the International Pole and Line Foundation, said: “IOTC coastal states worked hard to secure this important victory for tuna stocks and coastal livelihoods. This objection from the EU flies in the face of their efforts and is in direct contradiction to the will of the vast majority of IOTC members who clearly feel that the time has come to prioritise conservation and food security above the commercial interests of a handful of French and Spanish fishing companies”.
Prof. Dr. Valentin Schatz, an expert in European environmental law at the University of Lüneburg, Germany, said: “It is difficult to reconcile the European Commission’s position with the precautionary approach, a binding and fundamental principle of both European and international fisheries law. The precautionary approach dictates particular caution in situations of scientific uncertainty and explicitly prohibits reliance on the inadequacy of scientific advice as an excuse to postpone or prevent the adoption of conservation and management measures.”
Prior to the IOTC meeting in February, a letter was sent to the European Commission by 121 conservation organisations, civil society groups, artisanal fisher associations and responsible businesses, including retailers from around the world, urging the EU to support effective management measures for drifting FADs in the Indian Ocean. In addition, the NGO Tuna Forum, of which Blue Marine is a member, recently called for the Resolution to be implemented as adopted.
At a meeting of the European Parliament’s PECH Committee in March where the EU’s potential objection was discussed, one Spanish MEP, Francisco José Millán Mon, noted that Kenya had also announced its objection to the Resolution. This came as a surprise to many, as the meeting of the PECH Committee took place on the afternoon of Wednesday 1 March 2023, with Kenya’s formal notice of objection only being published by the IOTC on Thursday 2 March 2023, raising the question of how the Spanish MEP knew that Kenya would object before the objection was announced by the IOTC.
Alex Hofford, Marine Wildlife Campaigner at Shark Guardian, said: “We find it deeply regrettable that the Kenyan Fisheries Services, which was once the lead proponent of the Resolution, was side-lined and overruled by the Kenyan Ministry of Mining, Blue Economy and Maritime Affairs. It is not hard to see the hand of the EU behind Kenya’s incredible U-turn from being the lead proponent of the Resolution to objecting to it in less than a month.”
Concerns regarding the involvement of European interests in the internal functioning of Indian Ocean coastal states have been exacerbated this week, following the publication of two proposals by Seychelles for the upcoming IOTC Commission meeting containing tracked changes that appear to be made by Europêche and two other industry groups.
It is well established that, in addition to the detrimental impacts that drifting FADs have on juvenile fish populations, the use of FADs also results in high levels of bycatch of endangered, threatened and protected species, as well as entanglement, ghost fishing, marine pollution, and damage to sensitive ecosystems when they are lost or abandoned.
Dr Iris Ziegler, Head of International Cooperation at Sharkproject International, said: “I am ashamed of the EU and their refusal to adopt this essential management measure. Unfortunately, no management measures exist at the IOTC for vulnerable silky sharks. This 72-day FAD closure period introduced by this resolution therefore presents a much-needed break for silky sharks in the Indian Ocean from the massive fishing pressure of the EU fleet setting on these harmful drifting FADs, killing an estimated 100,000 juvenile silky sharks per year, caught as a bycatch in drifting FAD purse seining, most of which get discarded dead.”
Blue Marine calls on the EU to abide by the precautionary approach and reverse its objection, as other countries have, for the benefit of the marine environment, the Indian Ocean’s tropical tuna stocks, and the many coastal communities that depend on them for food security and livelihoods.
Image credit: Alex Hofford/Greenpeace