Yellowfin tuna rebuilding plan hits rocky shores at IOTC - a recovery plan is urgently needed

Posted on 14 June 2021

The 25th Session of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) ended on 11 June 2021 after a 13 hour session on the final day, resulting in a desperate attempt to achieve consensus on an interim yellowfin tuna rebuilding plan. In an urgent endeavour to end overfishing and restore overfished stock, the rebuilding plan which sets new reduction targets was adopted, while five members of the IOTC shared their intent of submitting an ‘objection’. 


Officials from the coastal states lobbied for an improved management plan aiming to reduce the use of fish aggregating devices (FADs) in the Indian Ocean, and a vote was called which resulted in an exhausting and confusing situation on whether a two-third majority was achieved. IOTC will be following legal advice from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to seek advice on the outcome of the voting. It remains uncertain whether an improved FAD management plan will be adopted or not. 


Although there were several options and opportunities presented in the proposal, members of the IOTC did not agree to any precautionary measures. There was an unfavourable response to achieve any measures lacking science, although WWF believes that there is enough evidence available on the ecological impact of FADs on habitats and species - the Commission lacked political inertia. 


“WWF called for an overall 20% reduction from 2017 levels to cap yellowfin tuna catches at the lower maximum sustainable yield range of 339,000 tonnes”, said Umair Shahid, Indian Ocean Tuna Manager for WWF. “This, in addition to calling for limiting FAD effort and agreeing to have FAD area closures in the Indian Ocean. From 2016-2021, the bycatch of juvenile yellowfin has increased from 26% to 37% in FAD based fisheries and it is appalling to see that FAD fishing effort remains on a high.” 


The outcome of the 25th session ended with the adoption of an interim rebuild plan for yellowfin tuna, which will come into effect on 1 January 2022. Although it is a temporary solution, it is an important step forwards nonetheless. The adoption of the rebuild plan breaks the status quo, however WWF remains concerned about its effectiveness, considering five countries, including India, Indonesia, Iran, Oman and Madagascar would be objecting to it. WWF is disappointed that many countries are beginning to use the right of objection as a matter of convenience for not agreeing to rules that would allow an end to overfishing of yellowfin tuna.


It is clear that the proponents from IOTC coastal states came prepared for the 25th annual session with an ambition to take a giant step towards sustainability of tuna resources. However, they were met with indecision from several other member states who demanded for more scientific evidence in order to make informed decisions, even in such a critical and urgent situation where the precautionary approach should be applied without any further doubt or delay. 


Yellowfin tuna is not the only species in peril. Skipjack is also still fished to above the thresholds agreed for 2018-2020, and a harvest control rule proposal for this species was adopted which sets up the Commission to have a more robust approach in 2022.  IOTC is also responsible for managing associated species, to which a surprise addition was the tabling of a possible adoption of an inclusive conservation and management measure on cetaceans in the Indian Ocean by the Republic of Korea, but withdrawn due to time constraints. Although there was no agreement, several improvements and additions were agreed upon, which lay the groundwork for 2022 for significant measures to be included alongside improved reporting and mitigation of bycatch of cetaceans in the Indian Ocean. 


“Bycatch of cetaceans is estimated to be very high. According to recent studies it is believed that around 60,000 individuals are killed every year in the Indian Ocean”, Shahid continued. “We stand committed to support the coastal states in their strive for a sustainable management of the local tuna stock. Improvements in fisheries data, infrastructure for reporting, in addition to support from markets would result in a positive change for marine life.”


The interim measure for yellowfin tuna, will be up for revision in 2022 post stock assessment which will be undertaken by the IOTC scientific committee where they plan to use a new index of abundance based on echosounder buoy data from purse seine fleets. 


Now more than ever, strong, urgent and strict measures and actions are required in order to ensure that the juvenile bycatch of yellowfin tuna is stopped, and binding precautionary catch limits are put in place to improve the Indian Ocean resources. WWF calls on the IOTC scientific committee to provide sound management advice and joins The International Pole and Line Foundation (IPNLF) and Marine Foundation (BLUE) in calling for a special session in 2022 to update the rebuilding plan as a matter of urgency. 



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