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Indian Ocean fisheries: shift in governance must deliver sustainable and fair fisheries


The outcome of this year’s meeting of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) has led to mixed reactions.

It’s generally acknowledged that this is the year that coastal states found their voice at the IOTC and this has been welcomed. However, there is also great concern regarding what is seen overall as a failure by the Commission to act decisively to protect key tuna stocks and to grant greater protection to other species such as sharks in the region. This state of affairs highlights once more the difficulties and complexities of the governance of international fisheries.

At the meeting a number of coastal countries tabled proposals on reopening a plan agreed only last year to rebuild the overfished yellowfin tuna stock. The plan requires cuts in catches by all fleets according to the type of fishing gear they use. Whereas delegates should have been examining the extent of compliance with the measures that came into force on 1st January 2017, instead they found themselves discussing changes to the plan itself which some countries haven’t yet begun to implement.

Yellowfin Tuna © Juergen FreundTuna © Juergen Freund

The reason given was the danger the cuts represented to the local fishing and processing industries in some countries. Despite the additional requirements to be delivered by a number of industrial vessels that have been adopted, without full and urgent compliance, the amended plan will not provide the protection the overfished yellowfin tuna so badly needs. Stock collapse would have dire and long-lasting consequences for the coastal communities and industries concerned.

There is also concern over the lack of support for proposals to manage tuna species evolving closer to the coast.  The fish caught in these fisheries represent a vital source of food and income to the communities involved. Despite all the efforts and investment dedicated to better understanding and management of these stocks, decisions still failed to be taken.

Proposals to protect and conserve sharks fared little better. To achieve some form of agreement as a first step, the proposal to ban the finning of sharks, for example, had to be adopted in such weak terms as to make the resolution virtually ineffective. Members were “encouraged to consider” keeping fins attached until a review takes place in 2019. A proposal to prohibit catches of manta and devil rays, which are related to sharks, was unfortunately deferred until next year.

Shark © naturepl.com/Doug Perrine / WWFShark © naturepl.com/Doug Perrine / WWF

In a similar vein, the proposal on extending the ban on the use of long driftnets on the high seas to the waters of coastal states, while adopted, falls well short of international moratorium on their use. This is despite their well-known destructive ecological impacts not only on tuna species but also on many other species including turtles and marine mammals.

Future IOTC negotiations need to see delegates much more attuned to the recommendations of the Commission’s scientific committee and, importantly, to see everyone determined to meet their share of joint responsibility in co-managing vital Indian Ocean tuna resources in a sustainable and equitable way.  Only in doing so can they and associated species be afforded the protection they so badly need.

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