Seafood supply chain left dismayed as Indian Ocean Tuna Commission kicks yellowfin can further down the road

At the 27th Session of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), delegates once again failed to agree a rebuilding plan for the overfished yellowfin stock, despite growing calls from the market to act.

The Global Tuna Alliance (GTA) has reacted with disappointment at another missed opportunity for the IOTC to agree a rebuilding plan for yellowfin tuna, which has been overfished for over eight years. The GTA hit out at the Regional Fisheries Management Organisation’s (RFMO) “broken” decision-making process, which allows objections by member states to block proposals, even if there is a clear consensus in favour. They’ve warned that continued failure to act could result in the market walking away en masse from the Indian Ocean, citing its joint campaign with the Tuna Protection Alliance (TUPA) and WWF and their market partners as evidence of growing discontent.

The 27th Session of the IOTC was set against a backdrop of repeated failures in recent years to address the overfishing of yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean. In 2021, the IOTC’s Scientific Committee stated that catches must be cut by 30% of 2020 levels in order to yield a two out of three chance of restoring the stock by 2030. That same year, an interim plan – which would have seen a very modest cut to yellowfin catches as a stopgap for a single year – failed to pass owing to objections from six countries, despite eighteen being in favour of the plan.

At last year’s meeting, a similar attempt to agree a rebuilding plan for yellowfin was stymied by objections, which according to the GTA, were given “without rationale or alternative.”

Ahead of this year’s meeting, the GTA had stepped up its advocacy efforts. They kicked off their campaign launching their own fake can of “Overfished Indian Ocean Yellowfin Tuna” at Seafood Expo North America, to highlight the predicament its Partners face in trying to market an unsustainable product to an increasingly environmentally conscious consumer base.

Already one of the largest seafood supply chain networks in the world – with 32% of tuna passing through its Partners in 2021, worth a dock price of $2.3bn – the chorus of voices from the market demanding sustainable tuna became noticeably louder and more unified this year thanks to a unique collaboration with TUPA, WWF and their market partners. The collaboration is notable for the increasing cohesiveness in which the market seems to be acting.

As part of their joint campaign, the three organisations released a joint statement demanding a plan that would restore the yellowfin tuna stock in two generations and which called for a revision to the IOTC’s objections process in the hope that it would break the deadlock over yellowfin. A report co-authored by the organisations documented what they believed to be a catalogue of misuses of the objections process by IOTC delegates and highlighted the fact that no other tuna RFMO has an objections process that allows members to opt out of measures they don’t want to comply with.

Most strikingly, the campaign also included a series of 20 individual statements from the market partners of the GTA, TUPA and WWF all outlining the steps they either have taken or will potentially take to move their sourcing away from the Indian Ocean over the continued overfishing of yellowfin.

In their statement, GTA Partner Princes Group said:

“Given the continued overfishing of Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna since 2015, Princes calls on the IOTC to take urgent action to bring catches down across the fishery in line with the scientific advice. The market has continued to make its voice clear. Princes has voluntarily reduced its use of Indian Ocean yellowfin by more than 50% since 2017…

“The current status quo of infighting and disagreement needs to end and responsibility must be taken. Compromise is necessary in the interests of Indian Ocean countries, economies and for the IOTCs future as a credible and functioning management organisation.”

Despite these efforts and several proposals for a rebuilding plan on the table at this year’s IOTC meeting, only one passed from host country Mauritius. But it was subject to revisions that made it a voluntary measure.

Reacting to the outcome of the meeting, Daniel Suddaby, the GTA’s new Executive Director, said:

“I witnessed first-hand the urgency for a cut in yellowfin tuna catch at the IOTC meeting in 2016, where I passionately lobbied for change. Now, as I assume leadership of the GTA seven years later, it is disheartening to see that no substantial progress has been made. The passing of a watered-down rebuilding plan, which can be easily opted out of within a flawed objections system, highlights a profound irony.

 “Without fixing the broken objections system, member states have no incentive to compromise, allowing them to hold the IOTC hostage and prioritise their national interest over the long-term well-being of the fishery that supports thousands of livelihoods and millions of people’s food security.

“What has changed since 2016 is that the market grows more organised with a unified voice and a willingness to wield its commercial influence by sourcing tuna elsewhere. The catching and processing countries blocking a rebuilding plan will inevitably suffer the consequences. Their national interests will be impacted, jeopardising their economic future in the face of a changing market landscape.”

Mr. Suddaby also wanted to note the positive steps taken by the Commission in line with the GTA’s pre-meeting asks:

“The GTA commends the dedication and support shown by countries and delegates who submitted and backed proposals, especially those advocating for a comprehensive rebuilding plan for yellowfin tuna. We are thrilled to witness the adoption of measures to establish catch limits for bigeye tuna, aligning with the total allowable catch (TAC) determined by the Scientific Committee.

“Furthermore, we are pleased with the approval of electronic monitoring minimum standards. This significant development holds the potential to address the issue of insufficient observer coverage in the region and instil greater confidence among our Partners in the IOTC’s commitment to enhancing the transparency of tuna fishing practices.”

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