M&S joins calls for EU to restrict harmful tuna fishing methods in Indian Ocean

<span>Photograph: Mauricio Handler/National Geographic/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mauricio Handler/National Geographic/Getty Images

The EU is under pressure to significantly restrict its huge fleet of fishing vessels from using “fish aggregating devices” that make it easier to catch huge numbers of fish and contribute further 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 the devices (FADs) are one of the main contributors to overfishing of yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean, because they catch high numbers of juveniles.

FADs have a “high environmental cost”, they say, because endangered turtles, sharks and marine mammals are often caught when the devices are encircled in massive “purse seine” nets of large tuna vessels. Lost, discarded or abandoned FADs can also cause environmental damage.

The EU should lead by supporting tough action to curb use of the tools, as a meeting with regulators, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), starts in Mombasa this week, the groups say.

Yellow fin tuna packed for market, Tenerife, Canary Islands Spain
Yellow fin tuna packed for market in Tenerife, Spain. The species has been overfished in the Indian Ocean since 2015. Photograph: Phil Crean A/Alamy

Yellowfin tuna, one of the fastest and strongest marine predators, have been overfished in the Indian Ocean since 2015. The region’s bigeye tuna stock was also recently assessed as overfished.

Sainsbury’s and German chain Edeka, have previously joined Marks & Spencer in calling for states to monitor, manage and restrict FADs, to reduce overfishing and rebuild yellowfin stocks.

Up to 300 free-floating FADs, typically consisting of a raft and submerged material where fish gather, can be used by a single vessel. Thousands are lost or abandoned every year. A rise in FAD use by industrial vessels has led to increased scrutiny of their impact on marine ecosystems. Many retailers, including Sainsbury’s and M&S, sell own-brand “FAD-free” tuna.

The 33 parties to the IOTC are gathering from 3-5 February to discuss proposals to monitor, manage and restrict FAD use. India has submitted a proposal to ban FADs used by purse seine vessels. A proposal by the EU suggests using biodegradable material in FADs to mitigate environmental harm, as well as increasing traceability and accountability and restricting FAD use per vessel to 280 by 2024 and 260 by 2026.

But tougher measures are needed to safeguard stocks, protect the environment and ensure transparency, environmentalists say. “Everyone agrees FADs are a problem,” said Stephen Ndegwa of Kenya’s agricultural ministry. “We should agree a precautionary principle to protect the environment, but the EU’s proposal doesn’t restrict FADs enough.”

Unlike Kenya, the Maldives and other coastal states without subsidised distant-water fleets, the EU could fish elsewhere if the stocks collapse, he said. “If the stock is depleted here, the EU can go to another ocean. But the coastal states have nowhere else to go. The EU wants scientific evidence, yet the stocks are collapsing. Why wait for scientific evidence if the stocks are in bad shape?”

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 every year, halve the number used per vessels to 150, and introduce a register of the devices to better identify and track them. Its proposal is backed by 11 other African and Asian coastal states including South Africa, the Maldives, Madagascar, Pakistan and Indonesia.

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Although the Indian Ocean is bordered by Africa, Asia and Australia, the single biggest harvester of overfished yellowfin – and indeed all tropical tuna over the past 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 fisheries ministry, said there is a lack of transparency around FAD use. Ziyad, who is also vice chair of the IOTC, said: “There is a serious lack of assessment and of data on what is happening in FAD fisheries. They operate in a black hole. There might be tens of thousands of FADs in the Indian Ocean. And we don’t know how many turtles or sharks are caught up by them.”

Ziyad urged the EU to take a tougher stance on restrictions: “It’s for the EU to make a move.”