Endangered species

Indian Ocean: European boats accused of illegally catching tuna

Written by Oceanographic Staff

According to new reports that were presented to EU authorities, fishing fleets from Europe have illegally caught tuna from dwindling stocks in the Indian Ocean.

Tuna numbers are dwindling all over the world due to overfishing and illegal fishing activities. Some populations are even close to extinction, experts have suggested. Figures by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission revealed that the yellowfin tuna catch in 2020 was 100,000 tonnes over the commission’s 2015 recommendation which would allow the fish stock to recover.

Two new investigations carried out by the OceanMind group and another by the charity Blue Marine Foundation further investigated tuna fishing activities in the Indian Ocean. They found that EU purse seine fishing vessels fished in coastal areas of the Indian Ocean, while reporting catches in the Chagos archipelago marine protected area and in Mozambique’s exclusive economic zone.

The first report looked at data published by the EU from its fishing fleet from 2016 to 2020. It found evidence for EU vessels fishing in the Indian Ocean, where main catches include skipjacks, bigeyes and yellowfin tunas. “Blue Marine Foundation subsequently established that the vessels were not authorised,” reports The Guardian.

By taking a deeper look at data from ships’ monitoring software, the second report found that the automatic identification system (AIS) of some vessels in the region was switched off. The experts behind the report believe that this could indicate unauthorised fishing activities as the AIS is usually kept on to transmit a ship’s position and to ensure it adheres to rules. According to the Blue Marine Foundation, some EU boats switched off their AIS for around three-quarters of the period from 1 January 2017 to 30 April 2019 in the western Indian Ocean.

A spokesperson for the European Commission, however, commented that boats might have good reasons for switching off their AIS system: “[Going dark] does not imply that they fish illegally. The AIS might be switched off under certain circumstances by professional judgment of the master. The information given by the AIS may not be a complete picture of the situation in the area and of the vessel’s activity.”

Both reports were presented at a meeting of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) in Seychelles last week, highlighting the importance of further investigation into the matter.

While authorities have confirmed that EU vessels haven’t had licenses to fish off Somalia since 2013, the EU fishing trade association Europêche argued that the EU vessels did not, in fact, fish in Somalian waters.

“The EU has a strict zero tolerance for IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing). In order to fight IUU in the IOTC convention area, the EU has also tabled a proposal to establish a high-sea boarding and inspection scheme, based on the work already done within the IOTC. This would be an important tool to control better the fishing activities in the high seas and continue to fight against IUU fishing. We have also tabled a proposal to improve the traditionally weak IOTC compliance process, by putting more emphasis on the categorisation and follow-up to established situations of non-compliance,” commented an official for the European Commission.

The Blue Marine Foundation, however, stands by the reports, as the foundation’s executive director Charles Glover explains: “The report showing the locations of EU vessels is based on the findings of a study commissioned by Blue Marine Foundation and undertaken by OceanMind – a highly reputable organisation – which in turn was based on publicly available data reported by the EU and published by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission on its website. This data shows, for example, evidence of fishing on the part of vessels flagged to Spain in the waters of Somalia, in 2017 and 2018, and India, in 2018 and 2019.”

“There is evidence to suggest that some of these fleets are fishing in coastal states’ waters without any kind of authorisation and we call on the European Commission to investigate these instances as a matter of urgency,” Glover added.

For more from our Ocean Newsroom, click here.
Photography courtesy of Ocean Image Bank / Ellen Cuylaerts & Unsplash.

Printed editions

Current issue

Back issues

Enjoy so much more from Oceanographic Magazine by becoming a subscriber.
A range of subscription options are available.