Responsible tuna fishing as a guarantee of sustainable future

The Spanish tuna fleet perplexed at the aim to assign yellowfin quotas to fleets using gear forbidden in the Indian Ocean

The Spanish tuna fleet perplexed at the aim to assign yellowfin quotas to fleets using gear forbidden in the Indian Ocean

The Spanish tuna fleet declares itself perplexed by the fact that some contracting parties of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) intend to assign yellowfin tuna quotas to fleets that fish with driftnets. The reason for the puzzlement is that driftnets were prohibited by the IOTC in 2012 due to their high bycatch of threatened and protected species, like sharks, marine mammals, and turtles. The Spanish fleet warns that the proposals for rebuilding the yellowfin tuna population that the IOTC has released (to be discussed at the special session scheduled for 8 to 12 March) call for catches to be assigned to fleets that use this kind of prohibited gear.

According to the Spanish fleet as represented by the Organisation of Associated Producers of Large Tuna Freezers (OPAGAC), the proposals are illogical, because they deliberately ignore the use of driftnets that are over the allowed length (2.5 kilometres) by fleets such as the Iranian fleet (a fleet that has repeatedly exceeded its catch limits, to boot). Driftnet fleets fished around 17% of the total volume of yellowfin tuna caught in the Indian Ocean in 2019, approximately 70,000 tonnes. That is exactly the amount by which some contracting parties feel catch must be reduced if the stock is to recover quickly.

The fleets that use this kind of gear include Iran, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Oman, all countries whose fisheries are furthermore insufficiently controlled by their national authorities. In most cases, they fail to meet other IOTC requirements, like the use of vessel monitoring systems, vessel authorisation, minimum levels of coverage under observer programmes, and port sampling.

The Spanish fleet points especially to the case of Iran. Iran has doubled its catch volume despite being subject to a limit under the Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna recovery plan. In addition, Iran has the highest cetacean bycatch of any country, about 30,000 cetaceans a year,[1] and it is the IOTC’s greatest debtor, owing 46% of the organisation’s outstanding funds. For all these reasons, OPAGAC feels it would be regrettable if the new proposals aimed at facilitating the yellowfin tuna population’s recovery were to envision catch possibilities for the Iranian fleet.

OPAGAC also criticises the IOTC’s failure to penalise such practices, as opposed to reducing the allowances assigned to fleets that are subject to reductions, whose catches are trending downward (4% below the limit that applied in 2019). The European tuna seiner fleet, for instance, abides by the IOTC’s measures and has established 100% observer coverage on board and at ports to ensure that their activity is controlled end to end, as opposed to the 5% minimum coverage the Commission requires.

According to Julio Morón, managing director of OPAGAC, “What’s happening in the Indian Ocean can’t be allowed to go on. There are countries using illegal gear, which is against the IOTC’s own measures, and the IOTC is not only letting them have a quota, but letting them get away with exceeding their quota scot-free. The international community, especially the European Union, which has prohibited driftnets in its waters since 2002, cannot just stand there. It must demand that the IOTC give driftnet fleets zero quota and include vessels that fish with driftnets on the IUU list.”

Impact on threatened species

The Spanish fleet also wants to draw attention to driftnets’ negative impact on protected and threatened species. According to OPAGAC, the international community, including the NGOs that have fought so hard to eliminate driftnets throughout the world, must strive to facilitate replacing driftnets with other kinds of gear that have a lesser impact, as the EU has tried to do at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). It particularly cites WWF Pakistan’s project to work with the Pakistani fleet to replace large driftnets with gillnets placed less than two metres below the surface, although the project has not reduced the protected species bycatch to the minimum.

According to a study by an international group of scientists,[2] Indian Ocean dolphin populations may have declined by over 80% since 1950 because of driftnets, which may reach over 30 kilometres long and over 20 metres deep. According to this study, 4.1 million small cetaceans, fundamentally dolphins, may have been caught accidentally by driftnets between 1950 and 2018.

It may be remembered that the United Nations’ General Assembly prohibited the use of driftnets in 1993. The EU passed the same measure for tuna fishing in 2002 and extended it to the entire EU fleet in 2015. For its part, the IOTC passed a resolution in 2012 prohibiting driftnet use; this resolution applies as of 1 January 2022 to the IOTC’s entire area of influence, including exclusive economic zones.

[1] According to Cetacean bycatch in Indian Ocean tuna gillnet fisheries, a study published in Endangered Species Research

[2] Cetacean bycatch in Indian Ocean tuna gillnet fisheries, published in Endangered Species Research


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