This week, politicians, scientists and fisheries managers from around the world are coming to Mauritius to attend the annual Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) meeting. This organisation is charged by governments to protect tuna stocks across the Indian Ocean, but right now it is abjectly failing in this task.
Tuna fishing across the region is poorly controlled – too many boats are taking too many fish, and often these boats come from wealthier, distant nations that use wasteful and destructive fishing techniques.
On Sunday morning, I sailed on the Greenpeace ship Esperanza from the Mauritian capital, Port Louis, along the coast towards Grand Bay where the IOTC meeting is being held, to deliver an important message. But the Esperanza did not sail alone. We were joined by a flotilla of artisanal Mauritian fishermen in their tiny boats who wanted to deliver the same message to the IOTC – act now to improve your management of Indian Ocean tuna fisheries.
Battling strong winds and an increasing ocean swell, the local fishermen did a magnificent job in keeping close to the Esperanza with their banners flying as we crept up the coast towards the IOTC conference centre to deliver our message.
The day before our flotilla sailed up the coast I had met many of the fishermen on the beach where they tie up their boats. In the sand, using a stick, they drew out a map of the coastline and we agreed a place where the Esperanza would meet them so that we could sail up the coast together to deliver a message to the IOTC.
These local fishermen, whose boats are only a few metres long and open to the weather, struggle to make a living because their catches have been declining dramatically over recent years. As the number of large, foreign tuna fishing vessels have increased, the local fishermen have seen their catches fall in size. They tie up their vessels on a crumbling concrete jetty that is barely usable or on a nearby beach covered in rubbish that has washed up in recent tides.
Just along the coast, visible from the fishermen’s beach, much larger long-line vessels from places such as Japan, Taiwan and Korea and huge state-of-the-art French, Spanish and Korean purse seiners berth alongside well-maintained concrete docks and use modern port and processing facilities.
This contrast, between the operations of the local fishermen and the foreign fishing fleets using the modern port underscores the Mauritian fishermen’s grievances and offers some explanation as to why they joined us to call on the IOTC to improve its management of the region's tuna fisheries.
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.
Wealthier, distant-water fishing nations such as France, Spain, Taiwan, Japan, China and Korea are supported more by current 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.
Transhipments of fish between vessels at sea are allowed – an operation that if poorly monitored (and this is usually the case), allows for loads of illegal fish to be landed ashore. In its recent voyage across the Indian Ocean, the Esperanza and her team have found evidence of this illegal fishing. We have now presented this information to the IOTC.
As we approached Grand Bay, the wind and swell picked up yet again and the fishermen decided it was time to return home. We waved them goodbye from the Esperanza as they turned for the coast. But they had made their point and their message will be heard at the IOTC next week.
The local fishermen who we sailed with today are already feeling the impacts of poor fisheries management by the IOTC. For them, declining tuna and other fish stocks are an issue that they and their families confront every day. They will remain in the front line of a poorly protected Indian Ocean, but unless the IOTC acts now to change the fishing here, we will soon all be the poorer for it.
Oliver Knowles, Oceans Campaigner, is currently on the Esperanza.
Greenpeace report looking at Indian Ocean fishing capacity