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New hope for Indian Ocean tuna


One swallow does not a summer make, so the saying goes. Yet at WWF we’ve been cautiously optimistic at the outcome of the recent meeting of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), in La Reunion, France.

The IOTC, responsible for the management of tuna and tuna-like species in the region, is notorious for its lack of action. But this time, important management decisions were agreed to protect skipjack and yellowfin tuna stocks .   IOTC members range from the smallest island nations in the region to some of the largest fishing countries and entities in the world, such as China and the European Union (EU).  All must now show that they really mean business by ensuring full compliance with these new, and all other measures, in force.

Here in Europe, EU member states have an important role to play in encouraging the move towards legal, sustainable and fair regional tuna management in the Indian Ocean and will explain why and how.

Tuna © Brian J Skerry/National Geographic/WWFTuna © Brian J Skerry/National Geographic/WWF

What we’ve been doing

Through our Smart Fishing Initiative, we’ve long been working with partners to ensure sustainable tuna fisheries. For this meeting, we called on delegates to adopt rules to control catches of skipjack tuna, as a result of changes in the status of this stock, and for an immediate 20% cut in catch of yellowfin, as recommended by IOTC’s own scientific committee. While the agreed cut is below the recommended level, this is a significant step forward and provides a good basis for further reductions.

In advance of the IOTC meeting, we met with decision-makers in the region to discuss and promote management measures. We also invited and received support from around 40 seafood corporations who co-signed a letter to all IOTC delegates asking for measures to be taken on skipjack and yellowfin tuna. This support was a significant incentive for delegates to respond to the call for action.

So why do we struggle to protect tuna?

No magic formula has been agreed on how to share natural resources in a sustainable and fair manner on land, let alone at sea. The Indian Ocean coastal and island nations have their own fleets of smaller vessels and a number have traditionally granted licences to long-distance fleets to access their waters in return for financial compensation. These fleets belong to Japan, China, the EU, Korea and others that catch tuna, as well as importing it from the region to supply their own markets. France and the UK also have a presence in the region through their overseas territories. The circumstances and priorities of IOTC members can and do therefore substantially differ and may go some way to explaining the lack of decisive action in IOTC, as in most regional fisheries organisations (RFMOs).

This has led to overfishing of several tuna stocks thus damaging the marine environment and reducing fishermen’s income. Given that many IOTC members are developing countries where, for some of them, fishing contributes to food security and basic incomes, it is the duty of everyone, including ourselves as fish consumers, to become involved in improving the situation.

The reality is that data collection continues to be patchy or non-existent. There is a widespread lack of management and enforcement capacity and expertise, undermining environmental protection and hindering efforts to deter illegal fishing practices. So what more should be done and who should lead attempts to turn the tide?

Fishermen with tuna catch ©Jugen Freund/WWF CanonFishermen with tuna catch ©Jugen Freund/WWF Canon

A concerted response from the EU

While WWF and others have been calling on the EU and other IOTC members to do more, there’s no doubt that significant and lasting progress will only be possible if all parties commit to legal, sustainable and fair fisheries – and act accordingly.

Europe is a major tuna consumer and imports 1.2 million tonnes from the region.  This is not to mention the tuna caught by European vessels. Europe has legal obligations and international commitments on environmental protection, which impose a duty to take a lead on sustainable and fair fisheries governance (PDF).  So it’s very positive that the European tuna purse seine fleet recently stated its willingness to support a range of management and monitoring activities towards establishing a regional approach to tuna fisheries with all relevant authorities and stakeholders.

Tuna vessels © Wetjens Dimmlich/WWF-SFITuna vessels © Wetjens Dimmlich/WWF-SFI

On 8 June we’ll celebrate World Oceans Day. As consumers, decision-makers, and fishers let’s all do our best to achieve sustainable and fair management of tuna fisheries.  Failure to do so would be deeply harmful to people and marine ecosystems all around the world.

Do you agree tuna fisheries should be sustainable and fair?  Let us know.

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