BLOOM calls on the EU to support environmental protection in the Indian Ocean » PACA’s economic and political letter

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As two crucial meetings begin today in Mombasa (Kenya), which could mark the beginning of a marked improvement in the state of health of the populations of tuna and other species in the Indian Ocean.

We call on the European Union to radically change its position by adopting the urgent measures proposed by India to protect the marine environment.

As the various tuna species are in decline, drastic measures are needed to put an end to the damage caused by foreign industrial fleets, in particular French and Spanish tuna seiners. In this context, India has, for the first time, tabled a long-awaited proposal to phase out the use of artificial rafts (‘fish aggregating devices’, or drifting ‘FADs’)(1) that allow high-tech fisheries to take control of all marine life leaving no chance for the animals to escape.

Until February 5, the intergovernmental meetings to be held under the aegis of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) will bring together 30 States with a direct interest in tuna fishing. The stakes are high for marine ecosystems but also for the development of coastal countries, since the “allocation criteria” for future quotas will be discussed there. On these two subjects (use of FADs and fishing quotas), the respective proposals of the coastal countries of the Indian Ocean and distant fishing countries (such as the European Union) are radically opposed. The negotiations therefore promise to be intense.

A neocolonial position

The first meeting of the IOTC, which will take place from 30 January to 2 February, will deal with the criteria for the allocation of quotas(2), that is, on how the “cake” will be shared between the States. On this point, a recent scientific study co-authored by BLOOM(3) sheds light on the different forces at play: while coastal countries want to reclaim these marine resources, the European Union is pushing the principle of “historical precedent”.

In other words, the Indian Ocean countries claim that what is fished in their waters belongs to them, while the EU claims that what European fleets have historically fished in the area belongs to them. The EU position would ensure that European fleets (i.e. French and Spanish) get the lion’s share of future quotas. The same principle of “historical precedence” for the allocation of fishing quotas has been widely applied in the EU and has led to the gradual disappearance of small coastal fishing communities, as industrial companies have taken over the vast majority quotas.

We therefore call on the EU to completely review its neocolonial position regarding the criteria for allocating future quotas. The principle of historical precedence is a major social and environmental failure in Europe. The EU cannot let history repeat itself in the Indian Ocean given the current urgency to protect marine ecosystems and local coastal communities in the face of rapid changes induced by species extinction and climate change. As it stands, the European position is also completely incompatible with the stated objectives of its development aid programme, namely to “reduce poverty” and “mitigate climate change”.(4)

A widely used destructive fishing gear

The second meeting of the IOTC, which will take place from 3 to 5 February, will focus on the management of drifting FADs, that is, floating objects made of various materials (plastic, bamboo, etc.) to which tarps, ribbons and other materials are attached. Drifting FADs were developed in the early 1980s and have since grown in popularity as anglers have begun to mimic the natural phenomenon of fish being attracted to floating objects such as tree trunks or whale carcasses. The use of drifting FADs has grown exponentially: European tuna vessels made 96% of their catches using FADs in 2018 in the Indian Ocean. For several years, FADs have been strongly criticized by scientists, NGOs and fishermen due to their ultra-efficiency and their negative impacts on marine ecosystems. In particular, bycatch – ie juveniles and non-target species discarded dead or damaged at sea – is important. For example, 97% of yellowfin tuna (an overfished species) caught under FADs by European companies in the Indian Ocean between 2015 and 2019 were juveniles(5).

Ahead of the IOTC meeting, India has put forward a proposal that finally stands up to the powerful French and Spanish purse seine fleets that use FADs: India has indeed proposed to totally ban drifting FADs from January 1, 2024(6).

Although India’s position in the IOTC is sometimes highly questionable, such as when the country opposed the yellowfin tuna recovery plan in 2022, BLOOM calls on the EU to support this proposal to rapidly abolish FADs in the Indian Ocean. This would allow the EU to align its sustainable fisheries goals with its actions, instead of supporting the private interests of a handful of companies whose negative impacts are amply documented. Moreover, it would be a particularly effective measure to rebuild the population of yellowfin tuna.

EU proposal at odds with environmental emergency

It’s a sign of the times: Kenya has also submitted a critically important proposal(7) that addresses the dramatic impact of FADs on ocean health. Instead of a total ban, Kenya proposes limiting the number of drifting FADs to 150 units per fishing vessel and phasing out “support vessels”, i.e. vessels that do not catch fish but manage and disseminate FADs for other fishing vessels, thereby increasing the number of FADs used by each of them. This very high figure of 150 FADs gives an idea of ​​the uncontrolled deployment of artificial rafts throughout the ocean. Currently, each vessel can have up to 300 FADs operational at any one time(8), but it is impossible to know precisely how many FADs are in use, as no data on their number, location or ownership is available.

This critical issue of opacity is also addressed by the Kenyan proposal which suggests the creation of a personal data register, containing in particular a unique identifier for each drifting FAD, the identity of its owner and the vessel assigned to it. Kenya is also asking for the establishment of a monitoring system for drifting FADs, which would allow real-time transmission of geolocation data. Such measures would constitute a considerable step forward in increasing the transparency of the tuna fishery.

EU proposal at odds with environmental emergency

Instead of taking responsibility and starting to turn away from technological assistance to catch declining fish populations, the EU has come forward with a proposal highlighting the need for ‘biodegradable’ FADs(9), which would therefore have no impact on most of the deleterious effects that FADs have on marine ecosystems, eg bycatch and high catch of juveniles.

The EU claims to have a vision for sustainable fisheries and a fair partnership with developing countries, but it has yet to walk the talk. On the contrary, BLOOM has recently shown that the French and Spanish purse seine lobbies now outweigh the number of public representatives within official EU delegations in the Indian Ocean(10).

Today, BLOOM calls on the EU to take a stand for sustainable fisheries and social justice through truly fair partnership agreements with developing countries and by supporting India’s proposal on FADs, Kenya’s proposal on transparency and claims of coastal countries instead of obeying its fishing industry.

Read the INVESTIGATION FILE “The tuna lobbies rule the roost”

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BLOOM calls on the EU to support environmental protection in the Indian Ocean » PACA’s economic and political letter

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