Op-ed: Nearly a decade of overfishing leaves Indian Ocean tuna on the brink

A Global Tuna Alliance and World Wildlife Fund joint initiative calling for a reduction in yellowfin catch
A Global Tuna Alliance and World Wildlife Fund joint initiative calling for a reduction in yellowfin catch | Image courtesy of the Global Tuna Alliance
6 Min

Kerrie Robertson is the advocacy lead for the Global Tuna Alliance. She has over 17 years of experience in public policy within the Australian and Cook Islands governments, where she worked as an expert negotiator in multilateral forums. She has also served in various head of delegation and chairing roles in regional fisheries management organizations and in United Nations processes. Most recently, she was the global tuna lead at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and has previously also consulted with a range of other organizations and universities on ocean issues. The subject of Kerries doctoral thesis concerns tuna governance in the Indian Ocean.

Robin Davies is WWFs sustainable fisheries lead and has more than 20 years of international experience in marine and fisheries resource management and conservation. A marine biologist who completed his doctoral thesis on marine fishing gear impacts and solutions, he went on to an international career leading global marine conservation and sustainable fisheries initiatives with experience spanning national and multi-country field projects to international processes and fora such as those run through the United Nations, working closely within tuna regional fisheries management organizations.

Normally, a 10-year anniversary is a cause for celebration. But, as Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna approaches its 10th year of being overfished and subject to overfishing, there is little cause for joy.

This is not the first opinion piece on the state of yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean, nor will it be the last. This iconic species has garnered much attention since it was first declared to be overfished in 2015. It is a lifeline for Indian Ocean coastal communities, offering nutrition, livelihood, prosperity, and economic security. It contributes significantly to government revenue in many coastal developing countries, offering a pathway to good infrastructure, healthcare, and education. It is a precious, multibillion-dollar resource that makes a significant contribution to oceanic ecosystems and biodiversity.

Why, then, has such an important species been so woefully neglected by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) – the intergovernmental body charged with the responsibility to care for it?

International fisheries management is often plagued with details and political complexities because of its significance to many countries around the world. While the detail is important, sometimes the bigger picture gets lost in the mire.

It is as simple as this: In 2015, the IOTCs own scientific body advised that yellowfin tunas status had changed from green to red. That is, it had become overfished and subject to overfishing, meaning the stocks biomass is too low and the rate of fishing is too high.

The commission was warned there was a very high risk that if catches were maintained, or increased, it would exceed the stocks science-based management objectives. The scientific body advised that the problem could be fixed if catches were reduced to 80 percent of year 2014 levels, or 344,000 metric tons (MT), as that would provide a 50 percent chance of rebuilding by 2024. The commission wisely accepted the advice of their scientists and agreed that “measures should be undertaken urgently.”

What might we have expected to see in the form of urgent measures? We might have reasonably expected the scientific advice to be taken seriously and for the requisite cuts to be made. We might have expected to see a concerted, cooperative, multilateral effort to reduce catch to ensure the sustainability of this critically important fish, exactly as the commission is required to do under international law.

Instead, successive rebuilding plans were adopted. None of them have worked for a range of uninspiring reasons: delays in implementation, exemptions for certain sectors, an unwillingness from some to accept reductions by writing themselves out of the rules.

While some countries did take steps nationally, these good efforts were undermined by other fleets increasing their catch through domestic growth policies and through reflagging – in effect, redistributing the biological crises rather than solving it. By 2020, instead of reductions, the catch had actually increased on the 2014 level by 9 percent. In 2018, the largest catch was recorded since 2010. In 2022, 410,332 MT were caught, while 340,000 MT would have been the safer limit. Ignoring scientific advice guarantees failure.

The scientific advisory body has dutifully continued to provide advice on the status of the yellowfin stock, though it has become a much-rehearsed refrain. Every year, advice is provided; every year the stock remains overfished, and catch reductions are advised. The only thing that changes is that as the state of the stocks worsen, the quantum of cuts required increases.

The commissions response has been less than flattering. It accepts the seriousness of the situation, as there is no doubt of the alarming state of the stock nor its importance to many countries in the room. Instead of doubling down on rebuilding efforts, the commission routinely requested new advice and updated stock assessments, all the while failing to implement cuts that would work. The IOTC excels at waiting.

The Commission is holding its 28th annual session from 13 to 17 May 2024.

That means it has had 27 years to learn how to prevent, and respond to, overfishing. With the critical yellowfin situation looming over its head, there are only two proposals on the table dealing with yellowfin tuna building. The first is a proposal which proposes cuts but which are plainly at odds with the scientific advice provided; the other concerns a one-month fishing closure, which is insufficient to address the issue at large. The rationale for this is likely to be that the next stock assessment will be available in late 2024, so it is more appropriate to wait and address the issue more comprehensively in 2025.

Yet, it is precisely because of this reason that an interim precautionary approach should be adopted for such an important species and the perilous state its now in. 

The GTA and WWF, therefore, have a simple message concerning Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna for the IOTCs members to adopt at this year's Commission meeting:

  1. Cut the catch: Reduce the catch of yellowfin tuna by 30 percent
  2. Restore the stock: Agree on a recovery plan for yellowfin

We see extensive commentary from opposing sides in the IOTC, but the reality is everyone needs to do their part, with some having already done so despite limited domestic capacities. We, and many others, are urging the IOTC to discharge its responsibilities faithfully. We also think that many governments join us in seeking an effective rebuilding plan. 

Whatever the case, it is clear that Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna is collapsing below biologically safe levels and there are no positive signs to suggest this will change any time soon. Until cooperation achieves sustainability, the commentary and conflict are ultimately irrelevant and a disservice to the greater goal. Now, more than ever before, we need to see an effective rebuilding plan in place to safeguard this stock for generations to come.

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