Online discussion highlights problems caused by drifting FADs

American consumers are familiar with the “Dolphin Safe” label on their tuna cans, and they may soon be seeing “FAD-free” labels, too.

The Blue Marine Foundation, a London-based NGO focused on marine conservation, hosted a free online interactive roundtable on “Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) in Responsible Tuna Fisheries” on Thursday, 6 May.

The foundation is focused on securing marine protected areas, developing models of sustainable fishing, restoring marine habitats, exposing unsustainable fishing practices, and connecting people with the sea to enhance understanding of the ocean. It was co-founded and is led by Charles Clover, the author of the book "End of the Line," which was later made into a movie of the same name.

The term “FAD” can be broken down into moored (mFADs) and drifting types (dFADs). The former are mainly used near shore in local artisanal fisheries. They are anchored, making them less likely to beach on coral reefs or pollute beaches.

The online roundtable event was mainly aimed at highlighting the ill effects and poor management of dFADS, as well as possible legal actions against fishing companies that deploy them, or market rejection of their products.

Use of dFADs increased from the 1990s when United States law set standards for use of the “Dolphin Safe” label. Tuna seiners had previously located schools of fish by spotting pods of feeding dolphins, but often caught dolphins along with the tuna. Now, instead of setting on dolphins, or searching for free-swimming schools, fishing companies often take advantage of the habit of many fish of gathering under flotsam.

A dFAD usually consists of a bamboo raft with flotation and a long attached tail underwater made of disused netting. Modern dFADs equipped with satellite-linked echo-sounder buoys can transmit their GPS location and data on the fish gathered under them. This allows fishing vessels to plot a course that takes in the most promising sets. Unfortunately, fishing companies also purposely abandon dFADs that are uneconomical to set on or to retrieve.

Featuring a panel of 14 experts, the Blue Marine Foundation-hosted event was broken into four sessions.

The first session questioned the legality of dFADs, raising the issue of whether purposely abandoning huge quantities of nylon netting that ends up polluting beaches and snagging on coral reefs constitutes “polluting” in violation of international marine pollution law. According to University of Dundee Professor Robin Churchill, non-accidental loss of a dFAD may breach Annex V of MARPOL – regulations of the International Maritime Organization on prevention of pollution by garbage from ships.

Another legal issue, raised by University of Wollongong Professor Quentin Hanich, concerns the question “When is an FAD fishing?” Hanich, who has authored a paper on the topic, noted that dFADs are set just to the east of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands Protected Area, where no fishing is allowed. The dFADs drift through the preserve gathering tuna, which are harvested as the dFAD drifts west and out Kiribati’s exclusive economic zone. If the dFAD is aggregating fish for harvest, is it “fishing” illegally? Hamich argues that under the rules of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), which sets rules for tuna in the region, it is.

The second session focused on the effect of dFADs on ecosystems and biodiversity. The speakers noted entanglement issues involving turtles, sharks, and rays in the netting of a dFAD’s tail. Additionally, University of Exeter Professor Callum Roberts said that fish that instinctively follow dFADs may enter an “ecological trap.” The instinct of fish to gather under flotsam may be related to the tendency for it to drift along under nutrient-rich current boundaries, but the networks of artificially placed dFADs could take fish to areas where they would not normally go, or retain them in places that are nutrient poor, resulting in lowered survival and reproduction.

April Burt, a graduate student at the University of Oxford, talked about a cleanup project on Aldabra Island in the Seychelles that recovered large quantities of dFAD garbage, and quantified the high cost of its removal.

Session three focused on the effects of dFADs on small-scale fisheries and coastal states. The examples were mainly from the Indian Ocean. Kenya’s Assistant Direct of Fisheries Stephen Ndegwa said that there are size limits in the local artisanal fishery, but foreign seiners take large quantities of juvenile tuna indiscriminately. Nirmal Shah of Nature Seychelles called for the foreign distant water fleets to pay for cleanup efforts.

In session four,WildAid's Alex Hofford urged more consumer engagement in FAD fisheries, for example through FAD-free labelling. Rohan Currey, of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), responded to calls for a certification scheme specifically for FAD-caught tuna by saying the MSC preferred an approach based on gear type. Only two fisheries employing dFADs have been MSC-approved so far.

Burt said that all signs point to issues being caused by dFADs and the purse seine industry.

“We do have the evidence to point the finger now and say, ‘This is definitely coming from the purse seine industry,’ so I think it’s definitely time to working on that ‘polluter pays’ idea,” Burt said.

Stephen Ndegwa, addressing a question from SeafoodSource about whether searching for free-swimming schools uses more fuel and thus emits more CO2 than fishing on FADs, noted that while this is true, a much higher percentage of juvenile fish are caught using FADs, so that it is not a direct comparison.

While many speakers appeared to favor banning dFADs altogether, some constructive suggestions for better management were made by fishery consultant Guillermo Gomez of Gomez-Hall Associates. Gomez recommended centering the establishment of a registry of owners of dFAD echo-sounder buoys and a centralized database of GPS tracking data that could remain confidential so long as the dFAD is properly managed and retrieved. Currently, data is handled by the makers of the devices and supplied only to the vessel owner. He also called for strengthening regional fishery management organizations’ (RFMOs’) oversight authority for dFADs.

The online discussion isn't the first instance of opposition to FADs. The International Pole and Line Foundation, in December 2020, urged the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission to take action on the practice.

Photo courtesy of RaroLens2/Shutterstock  


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