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Madagascar signs new ‘sustainable’ tuna deal with the EU

A small-scale fisher from Madagascar.

A small-scale fisher from Madagascar. Image by Trey Ratcliff via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

  • In late June, Madagascar and the European Union struck a new four-year deal allowing fishing vessels flagged to EU countries to resume harvesting tuna in Madagascar’s waters after an unusual four-and-a-half-year gap.
  • The EU says the deal benefits Madagascar by providing key funding to support fisheries governance, and civil society groups praised the Madagascar government for creating a more inclusive and transparent negotiating process than in the past.
  • However, critics contend that the deal offers little benefit to the citizens of Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world, and enables European vessels to exacerbate the overfishing of Indian Ocean tuna stocks.

Foreign tuna fishing companies, mostly from Asia, have been exploiting Madagascar’s waters since the 1950s. The bloc that is now the European Union joined the hunt in 1986 and didn’t stop for decades, renewing its deal with Madagascar every few years.

Yet when the last Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement (SFPA), as the deals are now called, expired at the end of 2018, negotiations on a new one had reached a standstill — and there they remained. For four and a half years, no vessels flagged to EU countries could fish in Madagascar’s waters.

Finally, in late June, Madagascar and the EU signed a new SFPA. The EU says the deal benefits Madagascar by providing key funding for fisheries governance, and civil society groups praised the Madagascar government for creating a more inclusive and transparent negotiating process than in the past.

However, critics argue that the deal benefits neither the Malagasy people nor the European public to a large degree, but rather a narrow set of private interests: fishing companies. They point out that the regional tuna fishery manager has declared two of the three main commercial tuna species in the Indian Ocean as “overfished” and fleets have long fished the third well beyond catch limits, and they say the EU will merely be adding to the overexploitation.

“[H]ow can the EU continue to brand their agreements ‘sustainable’ in the region, with … yellowfin overfished since 2015, bigeye overfished since 2022, and skipjack fished way over scientific advice for years,” Frédéric Le Manach, scientific director of BLOOM Association, a French nonprofit, told Mongabay in an email. “This is pure greenwashing at work here.”

A villager watching a reefer in the bay of Diego, Madagascar.
A villager watching a reefer, or refrigerated cargo vessel, in Antsiranana Bay in northern Madagascar, in 2015. Image © Pierre  Baelen / Greenpeace.

Concerns of overexploitation

Two of the main types of industrial tuna-fishing vessels are purse seiners, which cinch catch in enormous nets, and longliners, which drop hundreds or thousands of hooks on lines that can stretch kilometers. The new SFPA, which took provisional effect July 1, pending approval of the EU parliament, grants places for 32 purse seiners and 33 longliners, almost all of them reserved for vessels owned by Spanish and French companies. Previous SFPAs allotted the EU more vessels, but the EU didn’t use them all.

The deal could end up bringing 12.8 million euros ($14 million) into Madagascar’s coffers by June 2027, when it expires. The EU agreed to pay 1.8 million euros ($2 million) per year over four years, a similar rate to the previous deal, which lasted from 2015 until 2018. Most of that money is earmarked to support Malagasy fisheries governance, including monitoring and surveillance. In addition, European ship owners must pay fees and advances, which have increased since the last deal and could ultimately be worth 5.6 million euros ($6.1 million) over the course of the agreement.

There were “intense discussions” over the financial terms, during eight rounds of negotiations, an official from the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, told Mongabay in an emailed statement. The EU was “constrained” in what it could offer by the commercial value of the tuna, said the official, who declined to be named, citing commission policy.

Funds from such deals with foreigners have historically been key to keeping Madagascar’s fisheries ministry operational. Eighty percent of the ministry’s revenues come from fisheries access agreements with foreign entities, as of 2017, according to a ministry presentation that year.

The terms of SFPAs are fairly standard across Africa, and Madagascar’s isn’t notably better or worse than other countries’, Le Manach said. The deal is relatively small in terms of catch size: 14,000 metric tons per year, versus, for example, 50,000 metric tons in the EU-Seychelles SFPA. (Higher rates apply if the catch exceeds that amount.) The previous EU-Madagascar deal had allowed for 15,750 metric tons per year. The new deal includes a provision that prohibits EU fishing within 25 nautical miles (46 kilometers) of the Madagascar shoreline.

French purse seiner vessel Trevignon hauls a catch of skipjack and yellowfin tuna associated with a fish aggregating device (FAD) in the Mozambique Channel.
French purse seiner vessel Trevignon hauls a catch of skipjack and yellowfin tuna associated with a fish aggregating device (FAD) in the Mozambique Channel, which runs between Madagascar and the African mainland, in 2013. Image © Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace.

Conservationists and scientists have raised alarm about tuna populations in the Indian Ocean, including bigeye (Thunnus obesus), yellowfin (Thunnus albacares) and skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis). The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), a United Nations management body to which Madagascar is a party, recently took steps to protect bigeye tuna, but has taken no such action for yellowfin or skipjack.

Conservation-minded delegates have had difficulty getting all IOTC parties to agree on reforms. For example, Madagascar objected to a yellowfin tuna rebuilding plan in 2021, and the EU recently objected to a rule limiting the use of fish aggregating devices that contribute to unsustainable harvest of juvenile tuna, high levels of bycatch and pollution. Objecting parties are exempt from the measure in question. BLOOM attributes the resistance to change largely to industry influence; the NGO published reports earlier this year alleging outsize influence of tuna fishing company lobbyists on the EU’s IOTC delegations.

The European Commission official said that purse seiners flagged to EU countries have reduced their catches of tropical tuna in the Indian Ocean by 15% since 2015 while some states bordering the Indian Ocean have expanded their catches.

Another problem is the lack of enforcement of the rules already in place. Nearly half of tuna caught in the southwest Indian Ocean region between 2016 and 2021 was via illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, according to a new WWF report.

The upshot is that EU vessels contribute to overfishing in a poorly managed region, critics say. The long-term consequences of this, in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere, could be dire, and not just for the marine environment, researchers warn.

“If vessels from the EU (along with other countries) were to continue their practice of fishing beyond capacity in countries with whom the EU has SFPAs, this would result not only in food insecurity but potentially long-term economic underperformance and political instability, as these countries are not only poor but fragile and heavily dependent on their marine resources for revenue,” the authors of a 2020 paper in the journal Ocean & Coastal Management write.

Yellowfin tuna. Image by Ellen Cuylaerts / Ocean Image Bank.
Yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares), a species in danger of collapse in the Indian Ocean. Image by Ellen Cuylaerts / Ocean Image Bank.

Improved transparency

Civil society members have long criticized Madagascar’s government for not being transparent in its fisheries dealings with foreign countries and companies. However, this round of EU negotiations was different, at least after Paubert Mahatante, a scientist and former civil society member, became fisheries minister in 2021. The ministry then invited NGO and civil society members to preparatory meetings for the EU negotiations and allowed them to observe the negotiations.

Progress on transparency has been incremental. The ministry’s dealings with Asian operators “remain behind closed doors,” according to a new paper in the journal Fishes by Mialy Andriamahefazafy, a fisheries management expert at the University of Geneva. Civil society members have not been consulted on those deals, aside from one email that the ministry sent in 2021. However, the ministry is sharing more information than before: in July 2022, it invited NGOs to a signing ceremony for a deal with fishing company Japan Tuna and gave them a fact sheet explaining how the deal differed from the previous one with the company, Lalaina Rakotonaivo, fisheries coordinator at WWF Madagascar, told Mongabay. Japan Tuna has about 10 longliners working in Madagascar’s waters, Rakotonaivo said. Madagascar’s only other active non-EU tuna access agreement is with Interatun, a Spanish fishing association, which has six fishing vessels operating in the country, he said, citing a ministry report from June. It’s not clear which flag Interatun is using, but the association has in the past used “flags of convenience” from countries such as the Seychelles or Mauritius when fishing in Madagascar.

The non-EU deals may soon become still more transparent. In 2021, the country signed onto the Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI), a global initiative based in the Seychelles, and officially became a “candidate country” in December 2022, effectively agreeing to make a series of reforms. By December 2023, Madagascar must make all of its fishing access agreements public; if any existing deals have nondisclosure or confidentiality clauses that inhibit doing so, the country must renegotiate those deals by December 2025, Will May, a FiTI regional coordinator, told Mongabay via email. On July 5, the ministry launched a new website that will contain the released agreements, May said.

Le Manach welcomed the increased transparency in Madagascar-EU negotiations but said it doesn’t change the imbalance of power between the two sides or the outsize role the European tuna industry plays.

“It’s a good thing that civil society can provide input, but these agreements are still negotiated for the benefit of private companies, so they lead the game,” he said.

Officials at Madagascar’s fisheries ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.

Banner image: A small-scale fisher from Madagascar, in 2019. Image by Trey Ratcliff via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Clarification 8/21/23: This story has been updated. The changes clarify the use of the term “overfishing” and the status of the three main commercial tuna stocks in the Indian Ocean. They provide additional detail about the problems fish aggregating devices can cause. And they clarify the volume of catch EU-flagged vessels are permitted under the new SFPA between the EU and Madagascar.

Update 8/21/23: On Aug. 8, 2023, after this story was published, the IOTC issued a circular declaring that the resolution the EU objected to that limited the use of fish aggregating devices is non-binding because one third of parties to the commission issued an objection.

As one Indian Ocean tuna stock faces collapse, nations scramble to save others


Andriamahefazafy, M. (2023). Governing distant-water fishing within the blue economy in Madagascar: Policy frameworks, challenges and pathways. Fishes, 8(7), 361. doi:10.3390/fishes8070361

Okafor-Yarwood, I., & Belhabib, D. (2020). The duplicity of the European Union Common Fisheries Policy in third countries: Evidence from the Gulf of Guinea. Ocean & Coastal Management, 184, 104953. doi:10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2019.104953

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