There are three commercially important tuna species in the Indian Ocean, and all of them are at risk. One of the prickliest issues for tuna fisheries in the world is the use of fish-aggregating devices. On February 5, countries hammered out an agreement on fish-aggregating devices in Mombasa, Kenya. That’s when members of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission agreed to reduce the number of drifting fishing devices and to impose three-month closures on the devices.
Critics say this progress has happened despite the European Union attempting to water down ambition on critical measures aided by the vastly disproportionate negotiating muscle of its delegation to tuna talks, including numerous industry representatives.
The bloc’s distant-water fishing fleet reels in the largest share of tuna in the Indian Ocean, most of it taken by massive industrial vessels that use fish-aggregating devices.
“EU public authorities and industrial lobbies have merged into a unique body which, on top of damaging marine wildlife and ecosystems also harms developing economies in the Global South,” Frédéric Le Manach, scientific director of BLOOM Association, a French nonprofit, said in a statement.
The European Union has sent more lobbyists than officials to high-level tuna talks in recent years as negotiations around saving the Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna – a valuable stock perilously close to crashing – intensified, according to an investigation by BLOOM.
The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, an intergovernmental body responsible for managing tuna stocks, declared yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) “overfished” in 2015, sparking years of hectic negotiations centered on setting catch quotas and regulating destructive fishing gear like fish-aggregating devices. That year, the European Union delegation to the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission annual meeting included six members affiliated with industrial fishing lobbies along with 12 public officials. By 2018, lobbyists outnumbered public officials in the European Union delegation 14 to 12. The trend has persisted every year since then, with the exception of 2020.
Le Manach said these numbers are a sign of “toxic collusion” indicative of a deeper rot in the bloc’s handling of negotiations around fisheries resources in the Indian Ocean and Africa, where many coastal countries are former colonies of the European Union member states.
The European Union is the main actor in the Indian Ocean when it comes to tuna fisheries. Historically, it extracted the biggest catches. Despite its share falling in recent years, its industrial vessels (both those flagged to European Union states or ultimately controlled by European Union companies) still pull in the lion’s share of tuna, about 33%. Most countries along the Indian Ocean coast capture much smaller catches distributed among millions of artisanal fishers. Indonesia, a large Indian Ocean fishing nation with a population four times that of France, took less than 16%, a majority of which was caught by artisanal fisheries.
In response to growing concerns about tuna stocks, other Indian Ocean Tuna Commission members like Indonesia have also buttressed their delegations. But the recent expansions have only served to magnify the lopsided representation at such meetings, the BLOOM analysis shows. Between 2016 and 2020, the European Union sent 40 delegates on average, compared to 20 from Indonesia, a distant second in average delegation size, with the other 27 commission member states trailing behind. European Union delegates made up 20% of the total delegates between 2002 and 2020, even though the number of vessels flagged to European Union member states is only about 2% of the boats active in the region.
A spokesperson for the European Commission, who declined to be named citing commission policy, attributed the increase in delegation size partly to the pandemic. Since 2020, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission has permitted online participation at meetings, which meant “the size of all participating delegations, including the European Union, has increased in recent years due to the possibility for stakeholders to attend those meetings virtually and save travel costs,” the spokesperson said.
It is also “indicative of the increasing interest from stakeholders on IOTC matters,” they said, but added that, “strictly speaking,” only European Commission officials are part of the European Union delegation. Representatives from the fishery sector “could also be part of the European Union delegation as observers,” the statement noted, but they are not authorised to negotiate.
However, in official Indian Ocean Tuna Commission documents, lobbyists from several French and Spanish tuna fisheries interest groups are listed as “advisors” in European Union delegations, not observers, and delegations had begun to swell even before the pandemic.
The European Union fleet comprises dozens of purse seiners, most of them flagged to Spain and France, which catch tuna using fish-aggregating devices. These are raft-like structures with underwater tails made of netting, canvas or ropes. Some fish-aggregating devices are anchored in one place while others, called drifting fish-aggregating devices, are set loose on the open sea. They attract fish, adults and juveniles, by the thousands, making it easier for purse seiners to scoop them up. The capture of juvenile tuna, which are yet to reproduce, depletes populations and makes recovery that much more difficult.
The fish-aggregating devices, especially the unanchored ones, also contribute significantly to marine pollution in certain areas, as reported earlier by Mongabay.
As far back as 2015, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission flagged fishing using fish-aggregating devices as a threat to tuna populations, including bigeye (Thunnus obesus) and skipjack (Katsuwonus pelamis) that are caught alongside yellowfin tuna.
Despite warnings from scientists about the dangers of fish-aggregating devices, purse seiners continue to release the devices by the thousands every year. In 2022, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission declared the Indian Ocean’s bigeye populations overfished and assessed that skipjack was being fished at unsustainable levels.
From February 3 to 5, Indian Ocean Tuna Commission members gathered in Kenya for a special session on the use of these fishing aids. At the meeting, India pushed for a ban on drifting fish-aggregating devices, saying it was necessary to apply the precautionary principle given the alarming state of yellowfin tuna. Another plan, backed by several major fishing nations, including the Maldives, Indonesia and India sought annual three-month drifting fish-aggregating devices closures. It called for a steep cut to the number of devices a vessel can deploy at any one time, from 300 to 150.
This proposal was initially submitted by Kenya and Maldives. But Kenya abruptly rescinded its support for the plan at the start of the talks. BLOOM accuses the European Union of pressuring the East African nation to withdraw by threatening to cut off funding for the country’s Blue Economy programme.
The European Commission spokesperson refuted the accusation that the European Union “resorted to any economic pressure or behind-the-scene pressuring,” adding that the bloc “maintains a regular bilateral dialogue with all its partners on matters of sustainable fishing and our ocean agenda more broadly.”
Mongabay also reached out to Kenya’s department of fisheries, which sends representatives to the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission talks, about the accusation and did not receive a response by the time of publication.
In its own proposal, the European Union recommended reducing the number from 300 to 280 starting in 2024 and then gradually bringing it down to 240 by 2028. The bloc said there wasn’t enough scientific evidence for fish-aggregating devices closures yet.
The revised proposal ultimately accepted at Mombasa via secret ballot, with 16 votes of 23 cast in favor, set the limit at 250 by 2024 and 200 by 2026. It’s unclear at the moment how the European Union voted.
“EU has always tried to facilitate negotiations and compromises for FADs and tropical tuna regulations in general,” said Antonin Violette, a spokesperson for Orthongel, a group representing the French tuna industry that has consistently participated in Indian Ocean Tuna Commission tuna talks. Violette described the European Union’s proposal as “very ambitious,” saying that “it improves management, traceability, transparency and biodegradability of both anchored and drifting FADs.”
The European Commission statement cited the large number and wide-range of proposals put forward by the European Union as evidence of the bloc’s constructive role at the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, adding that these proposals tackled a host of important issues, from tuna stock management to regulation of FADs. “[I]t is probably not what you would expect if commercial interests were dominating the EU position,” the European Commission spokesperson said.
According to Le Manach, if the European Union actually supported ambitious measures to conserve tuna species, like the ones put forth by India and the Maldives, “the situation would improve for everyone” because the European Union is such a dominant player in the region. But that, he argued, would require “radically limiting” the presence and influence of lobbyists at Indian Ocean Tuna Commission negotiations.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.