Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 12 May 2013
Tuna Wars are hotting up in the Indian Ocean.
At stake are the jobs of tens of thousands of fishermen, and nutrition of hundreds of millions of people living in Indian Ocean rim countries.
Last week, as government officials, scientists and fisheries managers from these countries converged in Mauritius for the annual meeting of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), environmental groups again cautioned that overfishing is driving these fish stocks close to a collapse point.
Greenpeace, the most vocal among them, claimed that IOTC was not doing enough to control fishing fleets and prevent illegal fishing. The activist group reiterated the need for stricter controls to protect remaining tuna stocks.
IOTC, an inter-governmental body, covers the catch of 16 tuna and tuna-like fish species in the Indian Ocean. Their annual harvest, exceeding one million tonnes, adds up to a quarter of the world’s total tuna catch. IOTC estimates this ‘very roughly’ to be worth USD 2 to 3 billion (without counting any value-added products).
So we’re not talking about small fry. In fact, tuna are one of the most commercially valuable fish in the world. They are highly cherished in Japan, and fetch good prices across many markets.
This demand sustains a large industry which now risks overdrawing the renewable resource on which it depends.
IOTC is mandated by a treaty to promote cooperation among member states to ensure the conversation and wise use of tuna fish stocks. But researchers and activists question its efficacy.
“IOTC management is currently so poor that there is no clear idea how many boats are actually fishing in the Indian Ocean. Wasteful and destructive tuna fishing techniques — such as purse seining with Fish Aggregating Devices — continues to expand unchecked,” says Oliver Knowles, Greenpeace oceans campaigner, who recently sailed the Indian Ocean on the Greenpeace ship Esperanza.
Thousands of multi-day fishing craft traverse the Indian Ocean. Not all of them come from countries that border it.
Knowles wrote on the Greenpeace blog: “Wealthier, distant-water fishing nations such as France, Spain, Taiwan, Japan, China and Korea are supported more by current [IOTC] management than many local fishermen, who very often struggle to make a living. Waters are poorly controlled and policed meaning there is a significant amount of illegal fishing taking place across the Indian Ocean.” (Full text: http://tiny.cc/IOGP)
For a while, the fear of Somali pirates – rather than any respect for international law or IOTC regulations – kept greedy trawlers away from southwest Indian Ocean.
But overfishing isn’t just by vessels from far away. Sri Lanka’s multi-day fishing craft have also been implicated for highly damaging or illegal fishing practices.
In October 2012, another Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, sailed from South Africa to Mozambique, Mauritius, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Inter Press Service (IPS) reported how they (Greenpeace) found Lankan vessels fishing in the Chagos marine reserve, in the central Indian Ocean — the largest ‘no-take’ marine protected area in the world.
The same month, the European Union warned Sri Lanka and seven other countries that their inaction to prevent illegal fishing could mark them as “uncooperative partners” in the global fight against unlawful marine practices.
Tuna species make up close to half of Sri Lanka’s total fish catch. Skipjack tuna is locally known as balaya, while yellowfin tuna is called kelawalla.
The ‘tuna wars’ illustrate the difficulty of balancing local livelihoods, international trade, respect for international laws and conservation needs. Regulation is made harder by not knowing the exact state of Indian Ocean tuna stocks, and the real magnitude of fish catches.
Oceanic Wild West?
“Indian Ocean is one of the least known and most unregulated oceans in the world,” says Dr Barbara Block, a leading marine biologist in the US, affiliated to the Stanford University. “It’s like the Wild West: people are taking whatever resources as they wish!”
Dr Block is a global leader in scientific research to understand life within the oceans through computing and telemetry — an automated process of data collection and transmission to a central repository. She has been studying how large pelagic fishes use the open ocean environment.
Her team attaches smart electronic tags to large fish and other sea creatures, and analyse the data-stream revealing their lifestyles and travels in the high seas. Call it spying on fish.
Tuna, among the predator fish being studied, are called ‘Ferraris of the ocean’. They are sleek, powerful and their torpedo-like bodies allow rapid movement through water.
They also love to travel: some born in the Gulf of Mexico have been found to cross the Atlantic Ocean, feed off European coasts — and return home to breed.
Is something akin to this happening in the Indian Ocean? Nobody knows. Compared to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, little is known about the life and times of Indian Ocean tuna.
Barbara Block, whom I met last November in New Delhi when she received the Rolex Award for Enterprise 2012, says the Indian Ocean is one of the hardest regions to study because so many nations are involved – some from Asia, and others from Africa.
“Unless we find out where the fish are and what the current status of their stocks is, it’s possible that other nations (from outside the region) might take away the resource before those around the ocean realise what is available,” she says.
Urgent research needed
She has been urging one of her former PhD students from Sri Lanka to start an electronic tagging programme for tuna in the Indian Ocean.
That student, Dr Nishad Jayasundara, is now a Postdoctoral Fellow at Duke University, USA. He fully agrees on the need to fill the large gaps in knowledge about Indian Ocean fish stocks.
“Countries like India, Sri Lanka and Maldives should take an initiative in leading the research to understand: where do our tunas come from? Where, when and how often do they breed, and how many are left?” he said in an email interview this week.
He added: “We are just starting to learn about complex migratory patterns of tunas around the world, but know almost nothing about the Indian Ocean. The technology to study these fish is there; we can use cutting edge techniques like next generation sequencing and satellite tagging to better understand our biggest source of protein as a nation.”
Research is needed to develop historical and current population estimates, understand their genetic structure, and develop the fishing industry around that information.
Dr Jayasundara further said: “Tunas are a very important part of the ocean food web, so understanding their role in our ocean is imperative to making predictions about what we can fish now and what we would be fishing in the future.”
From a pure scientific perspective, too, there is much to learn about these highly active large fish living in warm waters. For instance, how do Indian Ocean tuna tolerate warmer temperatures compared to their sister species in cooler parts of the world?
Given the current state of overfishing, research, regulation and conservation efforts must move on parallel tracks.
The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), which is campaigning for more sustainable tuna fisheries, notes: “As the methods of catching tuna have improved over the years, the conservation and management of tuna has not evolved as quickly.”
One big challenge marine conservation faces is that excesses and abuses happen far out at sea — out of sight for most of us. Which is why one WWF campaign advert shows tunas asking: “Would you care more if I was a panda?”