EU Vessels Linked to Illegal Fishing in the Indian Ocean

Spanish and French fishing vessels were found to have been illegally fishing in the exclusive economic zones of Somalia, India and Mozambique, claims a new report by the Blue Marine Foundation, an NGO dedicated to marine conservation. The EU is the biggest tuna harvester in the Indian Ocean, with France and Spain accounting for most of the catches.

The two operate sizeable distant-water fleets that engage in purse seining, large-scale industrial fishing, which poses threat not only to the target species but also – due to large amounts of bycatch it produces – endangers marine life in general.

The Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) were established by the UN in 1982 and are reserved for the exclusive use by individual sovereign nations. Other vessels can access them only under special legal arrangements.

In the case of vessels registered in EU states, access is negotiated by the European Commission through the so-called Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreements (SFPAs).

If there is no SFPA, individual companies can conclude private access agreements with representatives of the concerned country.

However, the report found that neither of these were in place for the periods in question.

Perhaps even more concerningly, it was found that French and Spanish vessels had their automatic identification system (AIS) turned off for 59% and 74% of their time on the sea during the analyzed period between January 2019 and December 2020.

The AIS, mandated by EU law, transmits a ship’s position. It is used primarily for maritime safety purposes but may also allow countries to keep track of fishing activities in their waters.

These violations were taking place against the backdrop of the Indian Ocean’s yellowfin tuna stocks teetering on the verge of collapse, which could, according to estimates, come as soon as in 2024 unless the current scale of fishing is drastically reduced.

In an attempt to prevent the collapse, members of the Indian Ocean Tuna Committee in 2016 agreed to reduce fishing by 14%, using their catches in 2014 as a benchmark.

The efforts have failed, however, and the volume of fishing, in fact, grew by 7% as of 2020.

The EU attributed the failure to non-complying states, namely India, Indonesia, Iran, Madagascar, Oman and Somalia, boasting that it has reduced its catches by more than 21%.

Nevertheless, there are indications that the EU did not play by the rules either.

Findings of IOTC’s Working Party on Tropical Tunas (WPTT) implicated Spain in underreporting its 2018 tuna catches by more than 30%.

Moreover, a total of 16 French and Spanish purse seiners, exploiting flags of convenience, are known to be operating under the flags of Seychelles and Mauritius.

This allows them to avoid catch limits imposed on EU vessels and exploit catch allowances in the Seychelles and Mauritius, which were set more flexibly, given their status as developing countries with a high economic dependence on fishing.

For comparison, the Indian Ocean’s fleet flagged under Spain and France totals only 27 vessels.

The 26th Session of the IOTC, held two weeks ago, made one more attempt to resolve the crisis.

No agreement was reached, however, leaving the fate of the yellowfin tuna population – and with it other species falling victim to purse seine fishing – uncertain.