Environmentalists frustrated by tuna commission

northern bluefin tunaThe Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) has been criticised by WWF for failing to introduce catch limits for the commercial fish species under its control. The 14th Annual Meeting of the Seychelles-based IOTC held in Korea from  1-5 March ultimately left WWF feeling frustrated,  but progress was made on some key issues relating to protection of sharks and seabirds

Bycatch has become a focus lately for conservationists with studies by BirdLife International showing that several endangered albatross and petrels are highly vulnerable to longline fishing in the Indian Ocean during their critical juvenile phase. Nature Seychelles, which is BirdLife in Seychelles, has formed part of the BirdLife delegation at meetings of the scientific committee of the IOTC to discuss this subject.

The IOTC has hardened seabird catch mitigation requirements for longline boats operating 25 degrees south, a measure which should go towards reducing the levels of byctach in the area. Boats will now need to use two out of five recognised mitigation measures, which include minimum light night operation, bird scaring lines, weighted branch lines and blue-dyed bait.

But WWF was disappointed to see the IOTC only commit to a fraction of the proposed measures at the meeting. A key Seychelles proposal for a ban on discards of Skipjack, Yellowfin and Big eye tuna from purse seine vessels was not adopted.

Under current laws, many fish are caught and then later discarded if better catches of higher value fish are found in a practice known as ‘trading up’. The proposed measure would outlaw this practice and reduce the hugely damaging effect it has on the population of tuna. “Developing Indian Ocean states were rightly upset about the failure to pass this significant bycatch measure as it is a food security issue for them,” said Dr Amani Ngusaru, head of WWF’s Coastal East Africa Marine Programme.“If it is good enough for fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean, why isn’t it good enough for fisheries in the Indian Ocean?”

A similar feeling of disappointment was aroused by the agreement to adopt a ban on commercial landing of  endangered  thresher sharks: “[the ban] is not all we wanted in relation to sharks and to the trade in shark fins but it is a major advance for the commission,” Dr Ngusaru said.

The area  WWF feels most frustrated about was the failure to impose stricter catch limits upon tuna. IOTC’s scientific community had warned contracting country parties that bigeye tuna catches should be limited to 110,000 tonnes and yellowfin tuna to 300,000 tonnes. Although the meeting accepted these recommendations, action to institute catch restrictions is to await a process of setting specific country allocations.

Dr Ngusaru explained how the failure to act upon the recommendations was a particular disappointment: “We have agreement on a catch limit for bigeye and yellowfin tuna, as recommended by the scientists and this is a big step forward for the IOTC. And we have a non-binding commitment that catch limits for the tuna resources of the Indian Ocean will be considered at the 2012 meeting, which could be a big step nowhere.”

Another  measure came in for widespread criticism: a ban on fishing in an area of Somalia that is already off limits due to piracy. Although its ineffectuality was a concern to the WWF, the greater worry was that it demonstrated how the IOTC was out of touch with what areas needed addressing.

“We have this laughable measure that an area off Somalia which is already largely off limits due to piracy will be closed to long-liners for a month and purse seiners for a month. Are we really serious about limiting fishing pressure on our already overfished stocks?”

The one area that generated real optimism was the growing assertiveness of Indian Ocean developing states in taking responsibility for their fish stocks, both in improving management of their own fishing industries and in seeking better practice from foreign industrial fleets in their waters.

It is these countries that are often less prepared to make compromises to conservation efforts as they are more focussed on attempting to stay competitive within global markets. Their increased presence in meetings such as the IOTC demonstrates a possible change in attitude where conservation is becoming a focus rather than an afterthought for many industries.

See WWF Fact sheet on Yellowfin Tuna here http://www.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/tuna/yellowfin_tuna/

BirdLife have produced a series of 14 Seabird Bycatch Mitigation Factsheets which describe the range of potential mitigation measures available to reduce seabird bycatch in longline and trawl fisheries. See this link: http://www.birdlife.org/seabirds/bycatch/albatross.html


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