The EU is under pressure to significantly restrict the use of “fish aggregating devices” on its huge fleet of fishing vessels that make it easy to catch large numbers of fish and further contribute to overfishing.
A letter signed by Marks & Spencer and more than 100 environmental groups, including the International Pole and Line Foundation, warns EU officials that FADs are a major contributor to overfishing of yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean, because they capture large numbers of juveniles.
FADs come at a “high environmental cost,” they say, because endangered turtles, sharks and marine mammals are often caught when the devices are surrounded by massive “seine” nets from large tuna vessels. Lost, discarded, or abandoned SBCs can also cause environmental damage.
The EU should lead by supporting tough action to curb the use of the tools as a meeting with regulators, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), begins in Mombasa this week, the groups say.
Yellowfin tuna, one of the fastest and strongest marine predators, has been overfished in the Indian Ocean since 2015. The region’s bigeye tuna population was also recently assessed as overexploited.
Sainsbury’s and the German chain Edeka, formerly joined Marks & Spencer by asking states to monitor, manage and restrict FADs to reduce overfishing and rebuild yellowfin populations.
A single vessel can use up to 300 free-floating FADs, which generally consist of a raft and submerged material where fish gather. Thousands are lost or abandoned each year. An increase in the use of FADs by industrial vessels has led to increased scrutiny of their impact on marine ecosystems. Many retailers, including Sainsbury’s and M&S, sell ‘FAD-free’ own-brand tuna.
The 33 parties to the IOTC will meet from February 3-5 to discuss proposals to monitor, manage and restrict the use of SADs. India has submitted a proposal to ban FADs used by purse seiners. An EU proposal suggests the use of biodegradable material in FADs to mitigate environmental damage, as well as increase traceability and accountability and restrict FAD use per vessel to 280 by 2024 and 260 by 2026.
But stricter measures are needed to safeguard stocks, protect the environment and ensure transparency, environmentalists say. “Everybody agrees that FADs are a problem,” said Stephen Ndegwa of Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture. “We should accept a precautionary principle to protect the environment, but the EU proposal does not sufficiently restrict FADs.”
Unlike Kenya, the Maldives and other coastal states without subsidized distant-water fleets, the EU could fish elsewhere if stocks collapse, he said. “If the stock runs out here, the EU can go to another ocean. But the coastal states have nowhere to go. The EU wants scientific proof, but stocks are collapsing. Why wait for scientific evidence if stocks are messed up?
The IOTC is the only tuna regulator that does not restrict FADs at certain times of the year, Ndegwa said.
Kenya wants to ban FADs for three months each year, halve the number used per vessel to 150, and introduce a register of the devices to better identify and track them. His proposal is backed by 11 other African and Asian coastal states, including South Africa, the Maldives, Madagascar, Pakistan and Indonesia.
Although the Indian Ocean borders Africa, Asia and Australia, the single largest fisherman of overexploited yellowfin, and indeed of all tropical tuna in the last three years, is the EU. A distant-water fleet of EU vessels, mainly Spanish and French owned, harvested 243,001 tonnes in 2021, according to IOTC data.
Adam Ziyad, director general of the Maldives Ministry of Fisheries, said there is a lack of transparency around the use of FADs. Ziyad, who is also Vice President of the IOTC, said: “There is a serious lack of assessment and data on what is happening in FAD fisheries. They operate in a black hole. There may be thousands of FADs in the Indian Ocean. And we don’t know how many turtles or sharks they catch.”
Ziyad urged the EU to take a tougher stance on the restrictions: “It is up to the EU to make a move.”