At IOTC meeting, calls made to save yellowfin tuna stocks from potential collapse

Published on
June 19, 2019

Yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean is being overfished and if unsustainable harvesting continues, it will bring the stocks to near-collapse, according to press statement from the environmental non-governmental organization Blue Marine Foundation deployed ahead of the ongoing 23rd Session of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission. 

The London, United Kingdon-based NGO is calling on the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) to take “decisive action to rebuild yellowfin tuna stocks in line with its own scientific advice.” It is also calling on consumers in the European Union to stop buying yellowfin until the European Commission adequately penalizes those who break the rules placing limits on yellowfin tuna fishing.

In a new report, “A case study on the management of yellowfin tuna by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission,” the group said the Indian Ocean yellowfin is currently “the worst-managed yellowfin stock in the world, by the industry’s own admission.”

“Consumers have been misled by misreporting, greenwash[ing], and so-called improvement projects into believing that yellowfin tuna from the Indian Ocean is sustainably caught. This report shows that it is not,” Blue Marine Foundation Executive Director Charles Clover said. “It has been disgracefully overfished for some time and we now hear that some of what has been on sale may have been illegally caught by E.U. fleets.”

The foundation’s case study said fishing companies have been disregarding a recommendation from IOTC scientists that they reduce their total catch by 20 percent to give the stock a 50 percent chance of recovery by 2024. But in 2017, the first year a catch reduction was ostensibly applied, the total catch actually increased by 3 percent, the report said.

The report also cited a complaint to the European Commission from the South African government alleging that the Spanish fleet had exceeded its total allowable catch in 2017 by nearly 9,000 tons and had continued its fishing activity unchecked, against European fishing regulations. 

The foundation called on European Commission to step up its enforcement efforts by stopping fleets from overfishing yellowfin.

“The E.U. can redeem itself in our eyes only if it also stops also taking an allocation of tuna that it is not entitled to take under [United Nations] law from the waters of much poorer nations,” Clover said.

Blue Marine Foundation member Callum Roberts, a professor of environment and geography at the University of York, criticized the IOTC’s reliance on voluntary compliance with its recommendations.

“The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission has failed to deliver sustainable yellowfin tuna fisheries through a combination of greed and incompetence. Scientific advice was watered down in decisions on reducing fishing effort, and then states failed to implement the cuts, instead actually increasing fishing effort,” Roberts said. “As bigger and more valuable bluefin and bigeye tunas have become overfished, yellowfin has become crucial to the industry’s continued prosperity. That prosperity will be short-lived unless the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission does its job properly and puts stock protection ahead of short-term profit.”

Other NGOs, including the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) The Earthworm Foundation, and Ocean Outcomes, along with seafood brands and retailers each called for an effective rebuilding plan for yellowfin tuna stocks. The groups called for IOTC member-states to comply with scientific recommendations for and 25 to 30 percent reduction from 2017 catch levels.  

“Urgent action is required because yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean is both overfished, and has been for a number of years,” WWF Project Manager Umair Shahid said in a statement. “If things carry on as they are, scientists warn we will likely see a ‘stock crash.’ Such a crash will cause economic and ecological hardship, as seen with cod in the North Sea/Grand Banks in the 1990s.”

However, the three proposals under consideration by the IOTC call for just an 8 to 13 percent reduction in total catch from 2017 levels. Those proposals are unacceptable, according to Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Global Tuna Director Tom Pickerell.

“This shocking state of affairs has been allowed to continue for too long,” Pickerell said. “Major buyers of yellowfin tuna will simply stop buying products from the Indian Ocean, if managers fail to do their job and continue to put this precious resource and the livelihoods that depend on it at greater risks. It’s time for the countries responsible for managing the yellowfin stock to step-up.”

That opinion was echoed by New England Seafood International, one of the largest importers of fresh and frozen tuna into the United Kingdom.

“We are extremely concerned that this stock continues to be reported as being in a vulnerable state, and the lack of an effective rebuilding plan continues to leave this stock threatened by the risk of continued overfishing. An effective rebuilding plan is required urgently so that New England Seafood’s, and our customers’ commitments to responsible and sustainable sourcing can be delivered,” it said. “We strongly urge IOTC delegations to follow scientific advice and agree to a resolution that will confidently rebuild the stock to ensure its sustainability.”

ISSF President Susan Jackson said it was particularly important to stem overfishing in the Indian Ocean, which yields 30 percent of global yellowfin tuna harvests annually. She called for a number of measures to be adopted by IOTC members, including a review of the adoption of harvest control rules by 2020; addressing data gaps in artisanal fisheries; strengthening monitoring, control, and surveillance measures, such as vessel monitoring systems and the regional observer scheme; improving fish aggregating device (FAD) management; ensuring full implementation of non-entangling FADs and further testing of biodegradable FAD; requiring 100 percent observer coverage on large-scale purse seine vessels; developing electronic monitoring/electronic reporting (EM/ER) standards “so that EM can be used to ultimately achieve 100 percent observer coverage” in purse seine and longline fisheries; and continuing to strengthen the IOTC compliance assessment process.

“Fisheries managers must act to protect Indian Ocean yellowfin,” Jackson said. “The scientific evidence regarding the status of Indian Ocean yellowfin is well-documented and concerning, and the IOTC has the power to adopt management measures that will rebuild this stock. The IOTC must heed the advice of its Scientific Committee and adopt effective management measures to reverse the decline of this critical resource.”

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