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Charting a course for sustainable tuna fishing in the Indian Ocean


Tuna is one of the UK’s most popular seafood dishes, but it’s often overshadowed by questions about its sustainability. Are more fish being taken out of the sea than can be replaced? Are the fishing methods used by big seafood companies threatening other species or damaging our oceans? WWF has worked on making seafood more sustainable for many years and this spring we’re at a potential turning point for tuna – specifically, the tuna sourced from the Indian Ocean.

Why should we care about tuna in the Indian Ocean?

In the UK we buy £6.3 billion worth of seafood each year and we have some firm favourites on our plates. Five species make up about three quarters of what we buy: salmon, cod, tuna, prawns and haddock. For tuna, we have to import everything we eat because it’s a species found mainly in the tropics.

An important source of tuna for the UK market is the Indian Ocean. Bordered by Africa to the west and Pakistan and India to the north, with Malaysia and Australia lying to the east, and the Southern Ocean at its southern extent, these rich tropical waters are home to the yellowfin, bigeye and skipjack tuna species. Their migration route takes them around the entire Indian Ocean, making them a target for fishing by many different countries in the region, as well as Europe, which has a large distant water fleet for fishing tuna located here.

Map of Indian ocean © GoogleMap showing the Indian Ocean © Google

But overfishing is becoming a big problem in the Indian Ocean. The stocks of yellowfin tuna have been assessed to be worryingly low and projections suggest a collapse of the stock may be only a few years away. Skipjack tuna, which is a smaller and faster-breeding species, remains at sufficient levels of biomass for now, but some scientists are noting warning signs even for this resilient species.

A collapse in Indian Ocean tuna stocks would be disastrous for millions of people all over the world, from the local communities and businesses who rely on the fishery for their food security and livelihoods, to UK consumers who enjoy tuna as a healthy source of protein. We need committed, determined collaboration from all the stakeholders in the fishery to improve the way fishing is managed and agree how many fish should be caught and by whom.

A new Fishery Improvement Project

In my last blog, published a few months ago on World Fisheries Day, I shared my experiences of my trip to Tanzania and the Seychelles, where I had visited to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Seychelles government and a number seafood companies to establish a Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) for purse seine tuna caught in the Indian Ocean. I’m pleased to say that this FIP has progressed to enter the stage of implementation, meaning that activities will now start according to the five year action plan.

FIPs are the main method by which WWF supports fisheries all over the world to work towards the sustainability standard set by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The Indian Ocean purse seine tuna FIP will focus on key areas of sustainable sourcing: healthy fish stocks, impacts on the ecosystem, and effective fisheries management. It will ensure that harvest strategies and control rules are in place for all species of tuna, that there is evidence of yellowfin are increasing in numbers, the fishery is not having a detrimental impact on populations of bycatch species and the marine environment, and that the fishing industry is complying with management measures. It’s an important collaboration that highlights what can be achieved when governments, businesses and NGOs unite behind a common goal.

The FIP participants include popular UK tuna brands John West and Princes. WWF is working in partnership with John West and its parent company Thai Union Europe and this FIP is the first of what will be a number of similar projects in fisheries around the world aimed at helping the company source all of its seafood sustainably.

You can see the action plan for the FIP and a full list all of the participating companies and organisations on the dedicated FIP webpage.

Yellowfin tuna © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWFYellowfin tuna © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF

Managing tuna in the Indian Ocean

As the FIP gets under way, we are looking ahead to May’s meeting of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), an intergovernmental organisation responsible for the conservation and management of tuna and tuna-like species (there’s more information on the IOTC website). It reviews the condition and level of fish stocks, analyses scientific data and can set binding resolutions for members on conservation and management at its annual sessions. There is an annual session of the IOTC where recommendations and resolutions are discussed and made into resolutions. Resolutions are generally adopted only when consensus is reached amongst all IOTC members and therefore wide support is critical to the success of any conservation or management measure that is needed to ensure a sustainable fishery. Ahead of the meeting last year, seafood companies and WWF had come together to send a joint letter to the IOTC delegates supporting the adoption of harvest control rules.

There was a breakthrough of sorts at last May’s IOTC meeting: resolutions were adopted to reduce yellowfin tuna catch and put in place harvest control rules for skipjack tuna – these were steps in the right direction, but frustrations remain. The IOTC’s scientific committee recommended a reduction in catches of 20% from 2014 catch levels, which was a step in the right direction but would provide only a 50% chance of rebuilding the stock within a 10 year period.

In response to the recommendations, the members of the IOTC agreed to a range of reductions: the EU purse seine fleet agreed to a 15% reduction and other gears and/or states committed to much lower reductions of 5-10%. The purse seine fleet only accounts for a portion of the total yellowfin tuna catch and the combined efforts fall short of the 20% reduction levels recommended by IOTC’s scientists. As things stand, the reductions in place may rebuild stocks, but if they do it will be over a much longer period than the 10 years the scientific committee projected. Going forward it’s essential that all members of the IOTC comply with the requirements of the interim rebuilding plan or face the risk of stock collapse.

What we are looking for in the run up to the 2017 IOTC meeting in May?

The launch of the Indian Ocean FIP is an excellent demonstration of businesses and NGOs stepping up to do the right thing for tuna sustainability, but our long-term success depends on actions by all members at this May’s IOTC meeting. Building on last year’s efforts, even more corporates and NGOs have sent a joint letter that was convened by the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation in order to to encourage the adoption of harvest strategies to each of the tuna management organisations, including the IOTC. The need for a sustainable approach to tuna fishing in the region is clear from all perspectives – for people, nature and businesses. So we are looking with hope to next month’s meeting for further progress.

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