While the Indian Ocean’s yellowfin tuna stocks are fast depleting, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission’s latest meeting ended without positive conclusions aimed at sustainable measures. The yellowfin Tuna (Thunnus Albacares), or Kelawalla as it is popularly known locally, is probably one of the most favoured fish of Sri Lankans, but little do we know that [...]


Bid to protect your favourite fish ‘kelawalla’, but IOTC is tangled in a net


While the Indian Ocean’s yellowfin tuna stocks are fast depleting, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission’s latest meeting ended without positive conclusions aimed at sustainable measures.

The yellowfin Tuna (Thunnus Albacares), or Kelawalla as it is popularly known locally, is probably one of the most favoured fish of Sri Lankans, but little do we know that this species is being overfished. yellowfin tuna is now categorised as ‘Near Threatened, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

With intention to take action to throw a lifeline to dwindling  tuna stocks, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) held a special meeting last week. The meeting’s aim was to introduce catch limits and other measures to sustain the tuna stocks, but it ended without a decision. However, it was decided to hold another round of talks in June.

During the special IOTC session held from March 8-12, six proposals were submitted for discussion and interestingly two of them were from Sri Lanka. One of the proposals, Sri Lanka submitted sought to set a minimum conservation reference size (MCRS) for yellowfin tuna. It proposed that to save the immature tuna fish and to ensure the sustainability of the stocks, the MCRS should be 92 cm. With tuna being caught using different methods ranging from pole-and-line, long line and purse seine nets, Sri Lanka proposed the MCRS to be applicable to all these methods.

Sri Lanka was also a co-proponent of a proposal to manage the fish aggregating devices (FAD) in the Indian Ocean. The other co-proponent was Kenya. Fish are fascinated with floating objects like logs and rafts. They congregate around them. In the open sea, fishers throw manmade floating objects to attract fish. A sophisticated FAD equipped with electronic gadgets can emit signal to the mother vessel indicating the density of the fish aggregated around it. Based on this information, the fishing vessel can decide its most economical target to cast a large purse seine net and catch all the fish aggregated around the FAD.

FADs are helpful tools for the fishing vessels, but detrimental for fish populations as they are instrumental in catching small immature tunas and bycatch of vulnerable non-target species. Initially, it was only Kenya and Sri Lanka which pushed this proposal to regulate FADs used by large vessels. Later several other countries also became its co-proponents.

However, the special meeting was more concerned about the main item on the agenda — reducing the catch limits of tuna stocks. In 2015, the IOTC Scientific Committee recommended that yellowfin tuna catches had to be reduced by 20 percent of the 2014 catch levels to bring the stocks back to a decent recovery. It is learnt that the Maldives proposed a reduction of 25 percent for purse seine, 15 percent for gill nets, 15 percent for long line, and nine percent for other methods, while the European Union, which accounts for the most of the tuna catch in the Indian Ocean, pushed for 20 percent for purse seine, 20 percent for gill nets, 20 percent for long line, 10 percent for others.

But they later agreed to a joint position of reducing the yellowfin tuna catches by 20 percent from the 2014 level with regard to purse seine, gill net and longline methods while 10 percent reduction vis-a-vis other gear types.

Many Indian Ocean states accuse the European Union of double standards as it delays more drastic cuts in Tuna catch while advocating sustainable fisheries. As per 2019 records, EU fishing vessels caught 70,000 tons of yellowfin Tuna, outstripping the Indian Ocean coastal states and pushing Iran that produced 58,000 tons to the second place and Sri Lanka and the Maldives with 44,000 tons each to the third place.

Tuna is also an important foreign exchange generator for Sri Lanka. All Island Multi-day Boat Owners’ Association president Tiron Priyantha Mendis says that IOTC allows larger catch limits for developed nations with large fishing fleets that operate in the Indian Ocean.

Many fishing vessels from EU nations, Indonesia, Korea, and Mauritius are capturing fish by using purse seine nets. This method is used in the catchment areas with fishermen trapping a large shoal of fish in a net, thus harvesting the offspring of the same fish along with the fry, he explains.

He adds: “This is a destructive system, but in our country, multiday fishing vessels use a non-destructive fishing method known as long-line fishery. In this method, a 40-50-mile-long line with 1,500-2,000 hooks is used and 100-110g of imported bait or squid bait is used. Because the bait cannot be eaten by small fish, our vessels catch only large yellowfin tuna, but IOTC approves larger limits for the EU and countries such as Taiwan.

“In terms of weight, the percentage of fish we catch is between 40 and 45kg. Our vessels catch between 50 and 200 fish per night. But large ships using the purse seines method catch between 25,000 and 50,000 fish per night. When we catch a 45kg fish, others kill about 15 small fish for a fish of similar weight. What amazes us is the increase in quotas for countries that own such destructive ships.”

Tuna is a pelagic or open ocean fish that lives as schools. Fish are cold blooded creatures that vary their temperatures with the environment, but tuna species are different as they are the only fish species that are warm-blooded. They can maintain body temperature higher than that of the surrounding water. Tuna species have bodies streamlined for fast swimming. Yellowfin tuna is said to be capable of achieving speeds of up to 75 km/h. They are marine predators preying on small fish.

The Tuna family has 15 species and overfishing has already put some tuna species on the brink of extinction with Southern bluefin tuna (Thunnus Maccoyii) now categorised as ‘Critically Endangered” or fish closer to extinction. At present the yellowfin Tuna is the mostly caught tuna species in the world. Therefore, experts stress the need to take urgent measures to avert a population plunge like what happened to their bluefin cousins.

The IOTC is an intergovernmental organisation that coordinates the regulation and management of species of tuna fish in the Indian Ocean. It was set up under the guidance of Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. Established in 1996, the IOTC now have 31 nations as its members including not only Indian Ocean nations but also European Union countries whose vessels are engaged in tuna fishing in the Indian Ocean.

As IOTC requested the delegates not to speak to the media, the Sri Lankan delegates remain tightlipped despite attempts by the Sunday Times to contact them.

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