IOTC decisions on yellowfin, skipjack tuna criticized as falling short of sustainability goals

A yellowfin tuna tail.

The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), which held its annual meeting from 16 to 20 May, 2022, is once again being criticized by ocean-focused non-governmental organizations, which are claiming it failed to take sufficient action to conserve tuna stocks.

Environmental organizations have been pressuring the IOTC to take action on issues threatening the sustainability of skipjack and yellowfin tuna stocks in the Indian Ocean for years, arguing both species are being fished at rates above the commission’s own scientific advice. The IOTC agreed to reduce the total allowable catch (TAC) for yellowfin in 2021 after months of pressure from NGOs, but that resolution was also criticized after multiple contracting countries objected to the adoption of the new TAC.

Now, NGOs are claiming the IOTC has once again failed to meet its responsibility by not reaching an agreement to end the overfishing of yellowfin and skipjack tunas.  

“For nearly a decade, the commission has failed in its responsibility to sustainably manage yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean. In the face of such management failure, we urge retailers, consumers, and fishing companies to walk away from sourcing the Indian Ocean Yellowfin Tuna,” WWF Indian Ocean Tuna Lead Umair Shahid said in a release.

IOTC data in 2020 indicated that both yellowfin and skipjack tuna were overfished in the Indian Ocean, with yellowfin especially facing high rates of overfishing. The 2020 data found Indian Ocean yellowfin was caught at a level that exceeded the maximum sustainable yield required to rebuild the stock by over 100,000 MT.

The 25th session of the IOTC in 2021 agreed to an interim rebuilding plan for the species after the 2020 season, setting a total catch limit of 401,011 MT. But even that catch total was in excess of the maximum sustainable yield of the species, according to a stock assessment published in October 2021, which found the maximium sustainable yield for the Indian Ocean yellowfin stock was 349,000 MT. Additionally, six countries formally objected to the rebuilding plan.

The latest catch limit of 403,000 MT, decided at the 26th session of the IOTC on 20 May, continues to allow fishing at rates above the maximum sustainable yield, and with the same six countries continuing to object to the plan, the Global Tuna Alliance said it is likely that the agreed-upon catch limit will be exceeded once more.

“The agreed catch limit was 403,000 MT, yet if these six member states who are not bound by the new measure continue to catch yellowfin at the rate they did in 2020, it could raise the overall catch to around 445,613 MT,” the GTA said. If accurate, that catch would be 28 percent higher than the recommended maximum catch.

The situation is more dire after a report published by the IOTC’s Scientific Committee earlier this year projected a catch limit of 301,000 MT is needed to be confident the Indian Ocean's yellowfin tuna stock will recover from previous overfishing.

“Now that we have a new, more-reliable stock assessment for Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna, it is clear that a catch reduction of at least 30 percent from 2020 levels is needed to be confident in our chances of stock recovery,” Callum Roberts, a professor of Marine Conservation at the University of Exeter and chief scientific advisor at Blue Marine Foundation, said in the assessment. “A 50-50 chance of saving the stock is not good enough – no better than a coin flip on yellowfin recovery. Healthy oceans need healthy fish populations.”

The GTA criticized countries that objected to the yellowfin-rebuilding plan, saying they derailed the efforts made by the 24 other countries that agreed to the new measures.

“India, Oman, Somalia, Madagascar, Iran, and Indonesia all objected, with most indicating concerns for socio-economic impacts on fisheries, which – ironically – will be the communities most affected when yellowfin tuna stocks dwindle,” the GTA said.

The association also criticized some of the objecting countries for not having any alternatives to the proposal, or rationale for the objection.

“Those who did explain their reasons frequently cited that they were supportive of conservation measures – proving that they understand the importance of reducing catch – though they weren’t prepared to cut their own share,” the GTA said. “Of course, many member-states did agree to take considerable cuts, and were frustrated with the lack of compromise from others.”

The International Seafood Sustainability Foundation joined the GTA in its criticism of the IOTC, and the member countries that have refused to go along with conservation measures.

“Some IOTC parties have made the required yellowfin catch reductions called for in the existing measure. Other parties have increased their yellowfin catches,” the ISSF said in a release. “And still other parties, in objecting to the measure, insist that catch limits do not apply to them. The existing measure, even if fully implemented, would not be sufficient.”

As a result of the lack of consensus on yellowfin tuna, the GTA said, global retailers will face tough sourcing decisions in aiming to satisfy consumers requesting sustainably sourced seafood.

“Global retailers including Tesco, Aldi, Princes, and Woolworths are left disappointed as they are, once again, left to answer to their consumers who demand sustainably sourced seafood,” the GTA said.

The lack of action on yellowfin was just one failure of the IOTC, the ISSF said. The organization also did not agree to the catch reductions in skipjack necessary to implement the annual quotas stemming from its own harvest control rule.

“As a result, skipjack catches may persist in exceeding agreed-to annual catch limits, putting the currently healthy stock at further risk,” the ISSF said.

The IOTC Scientific Committee indicated that the total skipjack tuna catch in 2020 was 555,211 MT, a figure that was later revised downward in February 2022 to 547,309 MT. The commission is calling on members that caught more than 80,000 MT in 2020 to reduce their catch by 9 percent, those who caught between 30,000 MT and 80,000 MT to reduce catch by 6 percent, and those that caught below 30,000 MT to reduce catch volumes by 4 percent.

Those reductions, however, don’t apply to IOTC members classified as “least-developed” countries, who could instead “decide to implement the required catch reduction progressively in 2023 and 2024.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Glen Holmes, an officer with the organization’s international fisheries project, said a decision the IOTC made on bigeye tuna does offer one positive outcome from the IOTC meeting. The IOTC successfully adopted a management procedure, or harvest strategy, for the species – the first of its kind for a tropical tuna species. That, coupled with its recent move to tighten rules on transshipment, represent positive steps toward better management of its tuna fisheries, Pew said.

“While it is disappointing that IOTC has yet again failed to reach agreement to end overfishing of yellowfin and skipjack tunas or to adopt a rebuilding plan capable of recovering the highly depleted yellowfin population, members have shown that it’s possible to make significant progress towards better fisheries management,” Holmes said. “Pew hopes that the success of the bigeye tuna management procedure and transshipment reform will lead to concrete action on other urgent tasks at next year’s meeting.”  

Photo courtesy of gdsfilip/Shutterstock


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