Indian Ocean Countries Unite on Sustainable Tuna Fishery

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A week-long consultative meeting on ‘Indian Ocean Fisheries & Tuna’, on adopting common stands on several issues including the usage of Fish Aggregation Devices, at the upcoming Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) summit was held in Colombo. The meeting convened by the Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Cooperation (IOMAC) was attended by fisheries ministers and ambassadors of several Indian Ocean states – Maldives, Indonesia, Kenya, Sudan and Thailand.

Presently, Tuna accounts for more than 42% of Sri Lanka’s total fish catch and 49% of the marine fish catch, amounting to approximately 143,000 tons. But like the Atlantic Blue-fin Tuna which has been over-fished, the Indian Ocean Tuna species– Yellow-fin Tuna (Kelawalla), Skipjack (balaya) and the Big-eye Tuna once common, are also facing a threat due to unsustainable fishing practices. The IOTC allocates a quota system among fishing nations to regulate the Tuna catch in the Indian Ocean, setting up a maximum sustainable Tuna yield. At the moment, the maximum sustainable Tuna yield is set at 350,000 tons for Yellow-fin Tuna and 110,000 tons for Big-eye Tuna. However, even the distant water fishing nations are members of IOTC, and there are complains the quota system is favouring them.

Depletion of Indian Ocean Tuna is a result of the distant water industrial scale fishing fleet of vessels entering the Indian Ocean. Traditional fishermen use poles and lines to catch Tuna one by one, which allows part of the Tuna shoal to escape, but these industrial fishing fleets, that started entering the Indian Ocean since 1980s, use Purse-seine nets, which scoop up all the big and small fish of the targeted area. Some large purse-seines are said to be as huge as 500meters across and 200 meters deep, sufficient to enclose all the high rise buildings of Colombo’s central Fort area.

Another tool in this process is the Fish Aggregation Device (FAD) which is now sophisticated for remote monitoring by satellite technology. In the open seas, fish aggregate around large floating items like logs. The fishing vessels using this simple concept, let several such structures drift on the open sea. But these have electronic devices attached to them that estimate the amount of fish aggregate underneath, and transmit to mother vessels through satellites. So the fishing vessel can decide on which area to harvest Tuna to get the maximum catch.

The Colombo meeting moved to curtail these FADs, with a collective call for a halt in using them in the Indian Ocean, at the next IOTC meeting. “Each vessel has about 70 to 100 such FADs in the ocean, and when combined with purse-seines, the Tuna stocks in the Indian Ocean will fast disappear,” State Minister of Fisheries, Maldives, Dr. Hussein Rasheed Hassan who chaired the first phase of the Colombo IOMAC meeting, explained. The Maldivian Skipjack Tuna Fishery is reported to have dropped from 140,000 to 66,000 tons in recent years, believed to be as a result of movement of European purse seine fleet westward, fleeing from the Somali pirates, and harvesting Skipjack before they enter Maldivian waters.

“The Tuna is a highly migratory fish, so countries have to act collectively, to protect the traditional fishery”, further commented Dr. Rasheed. The IOMAC meeting passed resolutions which they will commonly defend at IOTC meetings to benefit Indian Ocean fishing nations. “The EU is also dominating the IOTC because Indian Ocean fishing nations are not organised” said Sri Lanka’s Fisheries Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, stressing the importance of acting together. Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, who just arrived from the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation summit held in Rome, said the Indian Fisheries minister too has expressed their support for the IOMAC initiatives to stand out collectively, to safeguard the interests of Indian Ocean Fisheries nations. The preparatory meeting of the IOTC will be held in Kenya next week, prior to the IOTC annual meeting to be held in Sri Lanka in March.

“For IOMAC, this is another step in working with Indian Ocean nations to facilitate harmonisation of policies and coordination within international fora. Since IOMAC was able to bring about formation of the Indian Tuna commission in 1985, this gathering represents a significant milestone” said IOMAC’s General Secretary Dr. Hiran Jayawardene.

Published on SundayTimes on 20.02.2011

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