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End of the tuna FAD? Indonesia hopes so, but EU isn’t giving up just yet

An Indonesian tuna fisher using an anchored fish-aggregating device, locally known as rumpon. Image courtesy of Yayasan Masyarakat dan Perikanan Indonesia. (FOR HEADER IMAGE)

  • Indonesia has welcomed measures to cut back on the use of fish-aggregating devices, which critics blame for Indian Ocean tuna being caught at unsustainable rates.
  • A senior Indonesian fisheries official says all countries on the Indian Ocean coast have a shared interest in tackling the overuse of FADs and in improving the conservation and management of the region’s tuna populations.
  • In 2022, the Indian Ocean’s bigeye tuna population was declared overfished, while repeated violation of catch limits for skipjack tuna was reported.
  • The European Union, whose fleet accounts for a third of the Indian Ocean tuna catch, has reportedly said it will object to the new resolution; in that event, its vessels will simply continue deploying FADs as usual, since the new measure isn’t enforceable.

JAKARTA — The Indonesian government has welcomed a recent decision by fisheries regulators to curtail the use of controversial fish-aggregating devices, or FADs, which critics blame for a steep decline in Indian Ocean tuna stocks.

“Indonesia has the same concern with most of the coastal states in the Indian Ocean,” Ridwan Mulyana, the director of fish resources management at the fisheries ministry told Mongabay in an interview.

These concerns center on the use of FADs in general — large plastic buoys or floats that are tethered to the seafloor — and drifting FADs in particular, which aren’t tethered. Fish tend to school around floating objects at sea, so these devices make it easy for fishers to trawl them, including juvenile tuna and non-target species. Drifting FADs also contribute to the problem of marine plastic pollution, and can entangle sea mammals, turtles and other species.

At a meeting earlier this month of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), host Kenya initiated a proposal to decrease the number of drifting FADs operating at the same time and to impose a three-month moratorium on the devices. However, the Kenyan delegation backed down from the proposal unexpectedly at the last minute, leaving the Indonesian delegation to push for a vote on it. The result was a majority vote in favor of adopting the proposed measures.

A tethered fish-aggregating device in Indonesian waters. Image courtesy of Yayasan Masyarakat dan Perikanan Indonesia.

“It was an up-and-down situation,” Ridwan said of the efforts to get the proposal approved. “However, from the process I witnessed, the persistence that has been shown by all the proponents proves that unity can bring movement to a better direction for the conversation and management of tuna fisheries in the Indian Ocean.”

In 2022, the IOTC declared the Indian Ocean’s bigeye tuna (Thunnus obesus) populations overfished and recorded the repeated violation of catch limits for the skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis).

Drifting FADs, or DFADs, are prohibited inside Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the area of ocean that falls under the country’s jurisdiction. Indonesian fishing vessels are permitted to use them outside the EEZ, but even so, they only operate tethered FADs.

“The decision to adopt a proposal on DFAD must be taken for the sake of the IOTC community’s common interest and benefit both now and in the future,” Ridwan said. “In addition, decisive DFAD management actions also aim to protect the environment from the impact of massive DFAD use.”

Pushback against the proposal on drifting FADs at the IOTC meeting came largely from the European Union delegation, packed with “advisers” from the fishing industry. The EU tuna fleet in the Indian Ocean hauls in the lion’s share of the catch, and does so with the help of drifting FADs. The delegation said curtailing the use of these devices would threaten millions of jobs.

But because IOTC proposals cannot be enforced, the EU can simply opt out of any with which it disagrees. The EU has reportedly threatened to object to the new resolution, and if that happens within the next few weeks, the new measures will not apply to its vessels.

Ridwan called on other IOTC members to abide by the measures.

“Indonesia feels, and encourages, everyone to continue on what has been started, no matter what the result might be,” he said. “The adopted resolution is one of several measures adopted by the IOTC in rebuilding tuna stocks in the Indian Ocean. Indonesia strongly believes that managing DFAD will significantly improve tuna stock status in the Indian Ocean.”

An Indonesian tuna fisher using a tethered fish-aggregating device, known locally as rumpon. Image courtesy of Yayasan Masyarakat dan Perikanan Indonesia.

Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @bgokkon.

[Correction: The article has been updated to reflect that while IOTC member states have regularly violated catch limits for Indian Ocean skipjack tuna set by the regulatory body, the species is not currently overfished.]

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