East Africa: The Rape of the Indian Ocean – the Story of the Yellow Fin Tuna

Rome / London — Over the last past several decades marine fish stocks worldwide have been under intense threat. There have been many high sounding declarations and agreements to reduce catch effort, to use more environmentally friendly fishing gear, to prevent illegal fishing and to impose “closed seasons” to allow stocks to recover.

However, these declarations have often been disregarded and ignored, particularly when it comes to the open oceans that are beyond national jurisdictions and are the common heritage of all mankind. And the main culprits have been the developed countries, with their large and sophisticated fishing fleets and super market consumers which instead of being cutback, continue to receive political support and public subsidies.

The story of the yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean well illustrates what has been happening.

The Yellowfin tuna is one of the most majestic fish in the oceans. It can grow to 1.8 meters in length and up to 150 kgs in weight living 10 to 14 years. It is a top predator and moves with a grace and elegance that is sheer poetry in movement.

As juveniles, Yellowfin normally hunt in surface waters in packs although, when they mature, they change their habits and tend to be solitary. They live in tropical and sub-tropical waters and there used to be large stocks in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. But that was before Europeans, Asians and Americans discovered tinned tuna was cheap, and before the Japanese developed technology to very rapidly freeze freshly caught tuna for the Sashimi market in Japan where prize cuts can go for up to hundreds, if not thousands, of US$ per kilo.

During the 1970s and 80s the Europeans, Americans and the Japanese overfished the Atlantic tuna stocks. Their fishing fleets, mainly Spanish and French with several vessels flying “flags of convenience” – then moved to the Indian Ocean. These boats are floating factories with modern radar, sophisticated fishing gear and huge freezing capacity. Over time, more aggressive techniques are being introduced such as drifting Fish Attracting Devises (FADs) – small floating rafts that facilitate the growth of algae and seaweed and which in turn attract surface swimming tunas, skipjack and juvenile yellowfin. FADs, make it easier to increase catches and reduce costs but also are highly destructive as not only facilitate the catching of skipjack, the target species, but also young yellowfin tuna.

The overfishing of yellowfin tuna has triggered various attempts to reduce effort and introduce better management. Spearheading this effort in the Indian Ocean is the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), set up by FAO in 1996 to ensure, the conservation and optimum utilization of tuna stocks in the Indian Ocean. However, the IOTC is not well designed for handling the complexities and political pressures that stand in the way of equitable and sustainable fishing effort in the Indian Ocean. In particular, key aspects such as its membership and distribution of catch entitlement among countries, are deeply flawed.

The Commission is “open to any state that has coasts within the Indian Ocean region” – this is fine and as it should be. But it is also open to states that have coasts on “adjacent seas”, “as well as any state that fishes for tuna in the Indian Ocean region.” This wording has allowed membership of the IOTC of non-coastal countries such as South Korea, China, Japan, Spain, France and the UK, as well as the EU.

Moreover, the division of allowable catch is based on how much each country fished in the past. This results in the poorer coastal states getting a small proportion of the allowable catch as compared to the richer countries that have been operating large, modern vessels capable of overfishing in the Indian Ocean since the mid-1980s. The outcome of this highly inequitable strategy is that 45% of the allowable catch of yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean is allocated to the EU. And the developing coastal countries have not only seen their national fisheries impacted by competition from the developed countries, they are not even entitled to any license or royalty fees from oceanic fisheries adjacent to their Exclusive Economic Zones.

Furthermore, the IOTC has been given a hamstrung decisions making process. Decisions are by consensus which prevents fundamental reforms such as limits on purse seiners or on drifting FADs. And when coastal state attempt is made to push matters to the vote, such as was the case for a proposal to ban drifting FADs, procedural issues prevent them for being adopted.

And so it goes on. Rich countries take the lion’s share of the allowable catch of yellowfin tuna, depriving the coastal states and their artisanal fishing communities of all but crumbs. They also systematically sabotage attempts to place restrictions on fishing and introduce more eco-friendly fishing practices.

As in many other areas, from climate change to the use of coal and the transition to green energy, there is much rhetoric from developed countries but efforts to change the system are not yet working.

Stephen Akester is an independent fisheries specialist working in Indian Ocean coastal countries for past 40 years… …

Daud Khan works as consultant and advisor for various Governments and international agencies. He has degrees in Economics from the LSE and Oxford – where he was a Rhodes Scholar; and a degree in Environmental Management from the Imperial College of Science and Technology. He lives partly in Italy and partly in Pakistan.

IPS UN Bureau

Follow @IPSNewsUNBureau

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