Fish processing accounts for a quarter of Mauritian exports and a major foreign exchange earner. So the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission meeting in Mauritius carried a lot of stakes for the country. Now that the dust has settled, l’express speaks to Umair Shahid, Indian Ocean Tuna Manager of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) on what was achieved at the Mauritius meet and what it means for the Mauritian industry
What was your general impression of what happened at the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) session that was hosted in Mauritius recently?
The IOTC is one of the tuna regional fisheries management bodies in the world. It’s an intergovernmental science body that makes decisions based on science and decides on how to manage stocks of the 16 marine species that fall under its mandate. While other fisheries management organizations are more independent, the IOTC itself still works under the umbrella of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The session in Mauritius was the 27th session of the IOTC. At this meeting there were a number of good decisions that were made on issues that have been blocked for a number of years or which lacked consensus. Out of the 19 proposals that were made, nine were approved so that’s a good ratio. As was the overall atmosphere, especially compared to the special session that took place in Kenya earlier this year where it was difficult to achieve consensus. While the IOTC was able to demonstrate leadership on a number of things, the 5-day session in Mauritius was unable to resolve the more pertinent issues of drifting fish aggregating devices (dFADs) or yellowfin tuna.
Before getting into the unresolved issues, just briefly explain this problem of FADs and why it has become a problem in the Indian Ocean.
Drifting FADs are basically fish aggregating devices on the surface of the water designed to attract fish towards it. These can be built of different kinds of materials and each have an echo-sounder on it. These communicate with purse seine ships and transmit data on the quantity of fish that gather underneath it. When these ships see there is a high accumulation of fish, then the ship will just sweep the area with its nets. It’s a problem because a lot of species are attracted by these FADs, including juveniles of bigger tuna species and other species such as sharks as well. So when there is a large collection of fish under these FADs and when the fishing ships sweep the area with their nets you have a high rate of by-catch of other species such as silky sharks and juveniles of yellowfin and bigeye tuna as well.
The IOTC’s Scientific Committee has estimated that nearly 95 per cent juvenile yellowfin and bigeye is caught like this. These are fish that may be younger than two years old and have not reached reproductive age yet. According to an IOTC report published earlier this year, the spawning stock biomass of yellowfin has depleted by 50 per cent over the last 15 years. So if the juveniles of these species are being overfished and have a high mortality, then there will be few spawners left for the fish to biologically sustain itself.
There is also another issue of FADs becoming lost. Sometimes FADs drift so far away that end up getting lost and appearing in coastal areas or getting snagged on coral reefs. Even where fish and other marine species do not get caught in them they end up becoming marine debris. It is because of this ecological impact of FADs that they have been under discussion for such a long time in the Indian Ocean where you now have two tuna species, yellowfin and bigeye, in the red.
Which fishing nations are the biggest users of FADs in our region?
Is it the Europeans or the South Koreans? According to the IOTC, the primary fishing fleet that uses dFADs is the EU fleet of Spain and French flags, but also a Seychells and Mauritius. Although other countries such as South Korea also use them. These FADs are used to target skipjack tuna but they end up catching juveniles of other species as well such as yellowfin.
The background of the Mauritius meeting was that a special session of the IOTC took place in Kenya in February where it took two decisions; reducing the number of permissible dFAD devices on each purse seiner from 300 to 250 and a 72-day ban in dFAD use on the high seas each year using the precautionary approach when science is not enough. The EU criticised this decision as not based on science. Were they right to say that?
The decision in Kenya said that the IOTC’s Scientific Committee would be tasked with exploring the effect of such a closure period. If enough data could not be found by the end of this year, then starting in 2024, between September to November, this ban on dFAD use in international waters would come into force. Now the EU criticised that decision for not being one that was based on science and consensus…
But was it an unscientific decision in your view?
They said in the commission that they would consider the advice of the IOTC’s Scientific Committee which would provide them with options on dFAD management and whether or not a dFAD closure period would have an effect on juvenile mortality of other tuna species. They are also basing their objection based on the argument that if this closure period comes into force, then other ships using other gears would just start coming in and fishing instead. Their point was that if there is to be such a closure period it needs to apply to all fishing types.
This sounds more like a commercial dispute. So their point was that if they stopped fishing using dFADs for that closure period, then during that time a coastal state using other fishing technology would just jump in?
Yes. Exactly. Their point was that if they could not fish for that closure period, then no other fishing vessels should either. Had that applied to everybody then I think they would have agreed to that closure period. But that was not the case. Different countries in the region have agreed to voluntary closure periods on fishing their own waters to allow fish stocks to replenish, so why can’t that be done on the high seas?
At the meeting, Mauritius succeeded in pushing through its own version of a closure period for yellowfin tuna fishing. Was that a positive step?
The Mauritian government focused on trying to bridge the differences between the two sides and try to come to some sort of consensus. In 2021, there was a proposal for a mandatory 30-day closure period on all fishing for yellowfin tuna which would apply to all fleets and countries. But the proposal had a lot of issues, including the fact that it proposed May as the month for the closure period. Critics of the proposal pointed out that May was the month with the least amount of landings for tuna so a closure in that month would not have much effect.
«The mauritian government focused on trying to bridge the differences between the two sides and try to come to some sort of consensus.»
Previous yellowfin rebuilding plans also contained a lot of exemptions for smaller fishing ships, but what the IOTC discovered was that the yellowfin catch had actually grown by 9 per cent, and this was from exempt fishing vessels. The IOTC learned from its past mistake and did not want to repeat that. But in the end, the IOTC had to respond in some way to the yellowfin tuna emergency and so on the last day of the meeting in Mauritius, it approved its proposal for countries to voluntarily put in place a 30-day annual ban on yellowfin tuna fishing, with each country choosing which month to institute the ban and communicate that to the IOTC. It’s a very weak measure, but it does open up the possibility of several countries to champion closure periods, as they were reminded by the observers on SDG 14 commitments, and Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction – high seas treaty and Global Biodiversity Framework –Agenda 30 x 30.
Let’s come back to the dFAD issue. Everybody expected the EU to pushback on the decision on dFAD limitations that was decided in Kenya. They came up with a counterproposal, so why did they not succeed in Mauritius?
One reason was that there was a lot of confusion around the counterproposals against the Kenya decision. The EU presented one proposal and South Korea another. In the end the chair of the IOTC session suggested that both proposals be merged. When the text was finally presented on the last day of the Mauritius session, there was no clear position on the technical details of the proposal, ideally, some coastal states wanted to stick to what was decided in Kenya while other states wanted to have a clear decision, however, there was no clear movement from the EU on various critical elements, which was challenging for everyone to be able to take a clear position.
So the EU failed to come up with a clear counter-proposal and some coastal states wanted to stick to what was decided in Kenya ?
Yes. After the EU lodged an objection to decision in Kenya there was an expectation that it would come up with a proposal that would appeal to at least some of the coastal states. But since no clear counterproposal came out from the EU, it was difficult to push anything through and get support for what the EU wanted as once again, the negotiations on this important issue went into ‘sudden death’ situation leaving little margin to offer any consolidation.
In April the EU and France objected to the IOTC’s limitations on dFADs decided in Kenya. But before we discuss the implications of that, in March this year your organization alongside the Global Tuna Alliance and the Tuna Protection Alliance jointly came out with a report criticizing the use of objections at the IOTC. What is your problem with objections?
The use of objections at the IOTC is not very transparent. Any member-state can object to a decision with 120-days of its being taken. They do not have to present any reasons or rationale for objecting, nor is there any mechanism for memberstates to distinguish between objecting to a decision as a whole or a certain part of it. Regarding the Kenyan decision, the EU could have objected a certain part of that decision and negotiated with other states based on that. But no such system exists in the IOTC. This is why we feel that objections against IOTC decisions have become a convenient means to block controversial decisions they do not like.
So now that the EU (and France separately) have lodged objections at the IOTC’s restrictions on dFAD use, does this mean they are not bound to implement them?
Once an objection is made against a decision of the IOTC, it is not binding on that state. Once the 120-day time limit to lodge an objection has passed, then the decision is considered binding only on those states that did not object to the decision within that time frame. Although there is the possibility of a state withdrawing its objection at any time. So, yes, the EU is not bound to implement that decision.
Is this an indefinite thing? The EU will never be bound to implement this decision?
It is an indefinite thing. It won’t expire. The only way it can be changed is either through a new decision at the IOTC that would supersede the earlier decision or the EU itself withdraws its objection, however, the objecting countries are still bound to Resolution 19/02 on dfads, which remains binding. NGOs also made some proposals in Mauritius. The Pew Charitable Trust proposed that the data that the IOTC currently has can be used to come up with recommendations on FAD management. A statement by an NGO has to be seconded by a member-state, and this one was seconded by Maldives. WWF argued that often in the IOTC if a decision is not implemented it is simply forgotten until some other state picks it up later and the work starts from scratch. What WWF proposed is that the chair of the IOTC should work with parties that disagree on the Kenya decision to start working on resolving the bracketed text from Mauritius meeting to come to some sort of consensus. The UK and Pakistan backed our proposal. This way we can reach an understanding even before the next IOTC session in 2024 rather than keep discussing the same thing year after year.
«Coastal states ,that don’t have access to export markets won’t really be affected. It will be small island states that do have market access that will be impacted the most.»
Our local fish processing industry accounts for a quarter of our exports and is a major forex earner. They get all their fish from the EU fleet. And it too has come out strongly against the IOTC’s decision in Kenya. So if the EU is not bound to implement that decision or a closure period on FADs, does that mean they have nothing to worry about?
The Mauritian industry has made a massive commitment to reduce sourcing from the Indian Ocean. The industry needs to follow through on this commitment by making sure that the government and other industry players are listening to them otherwise markets will just walk away. Coastal states that don’t have access to export markets won’t really be affected. It will be small island states that do have market access that will be impacted the most. Markets and retailers in Europe are very concerned about this continuing situation.
One way or another catches will have to be reduced and whether this through voluntary catch reductions or closure periods, all this will have an impact one way or another. This is not a commercial war. This is a fight to make sure that there is enough tuna in the Indian Ocean for future generations.
Anything that helps rebuild the stocks in the region will help prevent increasing food insecurity, livelihoods being affected and businesses becoming unsustainable.