EU accused of ‘neocolonial’ plundering of tuna in Indian Ocean

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The EU has been accused of “hypocrisy and neocolonialism” for proposing insufficient measures to tackle overfishing of yellowfin tuna, while being the largest fisher of the prized species in the Indian Ocean.

Smaller than its Atlantic and Pacific bluefin cousins, the yellowfin tuna is one of the ocean’s fastest and strongest predators. Also called ahi tuna, this species is massively overfished in the Indian Ocean – so much so that supermarkets and brands including Tesco, Co-op and Princes recently took the surprising step of joining scientists and environmental groups to call for tough action to rebuild the $4bn population.

But although the Indian Ocean is bordered by Africa, Asia and Australia, the single biggest harvester of yellowfin in the area is the European Union. EU nations – principally Spain and France – operate a “distant water fleet” of 43 vessels that fish the seas thousands of miles from home. In 2019 they caught 70,000 tonnes of yellowfin, more than Indian Ocean coastal states such as Iran (58,000 tonnes), Sri Lanka and the Maldives (44,000 tonnes each).

EU ships are major users of “fish-aggregating devices” (FADs). These fishing aids are floating objects that cast a shadow to attract groupings of fish. By casting nets near FADs, catches can be increased with less effort but can lead to more bycatch – including juvenile tuna that have not yet reproduced.

Now a row has broken out between the EU and the tiny developing coastal states whose economies are directly dependent on the Indian Ocean. A former Seychelles fishery official has accused the EU of “hypocrisy and neocolonialism”, while the Maldives described the EU’s proposals to rebuild yellowfin populations as “woefully inadequate”.

Tuna being unloaded at Male. The fish are crucial for jobs and food security in the Maldives.

These issues come in the buildup to next week’s “crucial” emergency meeting of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), the regulatory body in charge of managing tuna stocks. Both the EU and the Maldives, out of 33 parties involved, have made proposals to the IOTC to reduce overfishing and rebuild populations.

It is the much poorer Maldives, however, that has proposed the toughest reductions. The EU is calling for a much less dramatic cut. Neither include measures to reduce the use of FADs, which NGOs say drives population decline.

“This is a ‘band-aid’ measure from the EU,” said Adam Ziyad, director general of the Maldives fisheries ministry and vice-chair of the IOTC. “It is nowhere near the required reduction levels to ensure we conserve the yellowfin stocks for our future generations. If they were serious, they would take a bigger hit and they would work with coastal states to have a better management plan.”

Chart of biggest yellowfin tuna catches

About 20% of the Maldives workforce is involved in fishing, mainly using pole and line rather than big nets. The country’s proposal has the support in principle of other developing nation states, including Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania, according to Ziyad.

“Yellowfin tuna is still in the red,” he said. “In the Maldives, we will take a 11% reduction in catch. It’s a difficult task for us to tell fishermen they have to take that hit. It’s important for jobs, for food security – it is still the most promising economic activity in the north and south of the Maldives.”

Each proposal is complex, but according to the Global Tuna Alliance, an independent body representing retailers and brands, the result is clear: the EU proposal would see 6% less yellowfin caught in 2021 compared with 2014 levels, while the Maldives proposal would mean a reduction of 14%.

The GTA welcomed both proposals but said the Maldives proposal was “much closer” to its own calls for a cut of 20%.

“Neither should be regarded as end points,” the GTA said. It claimed that the Maldives proposal was not “proportionate or equitable” either, because it focused on purse seiners, a type of wide-net fishing that is not generally practised by Maldives pole-and-line fishers.

Yellowfin tuna are weighed at the fish market. Increasing numbers of juvenile fish are being caught before they can reproduce.

Environmental organisations, meanwhile, called the Maldives proposal “the bare minimum” in a letter to the IOTC heads of delegation co-signed by groups including the World Wildlife Fund and Blue Marine Foundation. They noted, for example, that neither proposal addressed the use of FADs, which NGOs say worsens overfishing by disproportionately catching juvenile yellowfin.

Nirmal Shah, former chair of Seychelles Fishing Authority and now the chief executive of Nature Seychelles, described the EU proposal as a “delaying tactic”.

“The EU is hypocritical, going around the world talking about overfishing. It’s a neocolonial situation,” said Shah. “What the EU are telling us is they don’t care about our coastal nations.”

Jess Rattle, of the Blue Marine Foundation, accused the EU of being the “biggest contributor” to yellowfin tuna overfishing because of its dominance and use of FADs.

“Unsurprisingly, the EU has put forward a yellowfin proposal that is woefully insufficient, would not lead to the timely recovery of the stock and could in fact allow the EU fleet to increase its own catches, compared to 2019,” Rattle said.

She welcomed the Maldives proposal, which urges catch reduction, as “in line with IOTC management advice”, adding that it “calls for a much greater catch reduction than the EU’s, takes into account the needs of developing coastal states, and shows truly fantastic leadership that we hope will be met with support from all IOTC members”.

Greenpeace described the EU’s proposal as “outrageous and inequitable”, and said neither proposal was enough to rebuild the tuna population.

In response to the criticism, an EU official said it strongly supported “an effective reduction of catches to rebuild stock” and had been “instrumental” in the IOTC’s decision to convene a special session. The official defended the EU proposal as “ambitious but realistic”, with an obligation to reduce catches for all fleets, regardless of size, in a fair and equitable way.

With neither the EU nor the Maldives proposing to restrict FADs, it was Kenya and Sri Lanka that submitted a separate proposal to do so.

“Kenya, the Maldives and like-minded coastal nations only fish in the Indian Ocean, so if the stocks get depleted we are the ones who suffer,” said Stephen Ndegwa, assistant director of fisheries at Kenya’s agriculture ministry. “We will have nothing for future generations.

“The foreign fishing vessels, like the EU vessels, will move to other oceans, but we won’t be able to move – and we will be stuck with no fish.”

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