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EU regional fisheries strategies should focus on supporting harmonisation and specialisation

11 November 2012

Dr Michel Goujon

Dr Michel Goujon, fisheries engineer, is the Director of Orthongel, the French organisation of frozen and deep-frozen tuna producers. Orthongel represents the interests of a fleet of 22 tuna seiners active in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Orthongel is a member of Eurothon and helped to establish the Indian Ocean Tuna Operators Association (IOTOA).

Q: Two years ago, you participated in the creation of the Indian Ocean Tuna Operators Association. What was the objective? 

It is an initiative of the canneries from the Indian Ocean region and the purse-seine fishing operators who fish there. Nowadays, we find as members all the processors from the IOC countries – Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar and Comoros – as well as all European tuna fishing fleets.

The creation of the IOTOA corresponds to a period in which some environmental groups gave a negative image of the tuna purse-seine fishing sector, asking consumers, especially in Great Britain, to consume only line-caught tuna. The pressure from consumers, relayed by importers, was directly felt by the canneries, in order to push them to source their tuna only from these fisheries.

For our partners in the Indian Ocean, and for us also, it was important to re-establish trust and demonstrate, on the basis of objective elements, that purse-seine fishing can be sustainable.Indeed, from an environmental point of view, the use of purse seine has a good level of selectivity – this has been documented in the Indian Ocean region by scientists of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). This is due to the behaviour of tuna, which move in shoals. The use of sonar tracking, and visual sightings of the tuna shoals allow fishermen, provided they want to, to avoid catching undersized fish. Also, the catches are pulled on board alive, so that it is possible to return any unwanted by-catch, such as sharks and turtles, to the water, with a good chance of their survival. In the Pacific, where tuna are often associated with dolphins, a method is now successfully used to allow dolphins to escape from the seine. Moreover, as they operate on the surface and away from the coasts, purse-seining operations have no impact on the seabed.

Of course, practical improvements can always be introduced, and this is also something we are working on in the context of the IOTOA. We also did some preliminary work looking at the possibilities for eco-labelling, although this was not the primary objective of the association. 

Q: This would merely be yet another eco-label, wouldn’t it? 

We have defined specifications which encompass environmental but also social aspects, quality of the product aspects, and transparency. At the environmental level, for example, we are committed to producing no discards, except for the animals released alive. At the social level, we are committed to respecting workers’ rights, minimum wages, social security coverage, etc. For European vessels fishing under a fisheries partnership agreement, this corresponds to what we achieve with the implementation of the social clause. 

For canneries, there are also commitments related to the cold-chain aspects, correct waste disposal, etc. 

But the IOTOA is also a platform for discussing and promoting technical improvements, such as the development and generalisation of the use of ecological fish-aggregating devices (FADs) to minimise the environmental impact of this technique. In France, we conducted a programme for the development of this type of FAD, which will be standardised and assembled onshore – something which will allow better control of how many FADs are put out at sea.  

Q: Is this the central issue for you – minimising the environmental impact of FADs, including accidental catches of sharks and turtles and catches of juveniles? 

Yes, that’s a strong belief within the sector. We are well aware that, even if by-catch levels are already quite low for purse-seine fisheries, any improvement in the gear selectivity will benefit our sector: a healthy ecosystem is more productive; better selectivity reduces the workload on board, gives a better image of our activity, etc. With the improvements we are proposing, we want to show that well-controlled fishing with ecological FADs is responsible fishing.

In this somewhat black-and-white debate between fishing with FADs (described as being bad) and fishing without FADs (described as being good), technical and economic issues have to be taken into account. Currently, it is not possible for a whole fleet to be profitably fishing without any FADs at all. What is caught with FADs is essentially skipjack tuna, which forms at least 50% of the raw material for canned tuna. These catches with FADs are therefore an essential element of the overall profitability, and therefore the purse seiners who engage in fishing without FADs only make part of their catches in this way. They therefore need to install on-board separate tanks to store the tuna caught with and without FADs, and organise a flawless traceability system.

In our experience, in addition to technical improvements aimed at greater selectivity, there are also other approaches that are effective in preventing the catching of juvenile tuna, in particular the way the crews are paid. We pay the crews according to the value of the tuna caught – the bigger the tuna, the higher the pay – not according to the volume of catches. In addition, any tuna less than 1.5 kg is not paid for. With this system, it is obvious that fishermen will target larger tuna, not juveniles. 

Q: But FADs are also an important parameter that increase fishing capacity ... 

Indeed, it is an important aspect to be taken into account when developing capacity management systems for tuna fisheries at the level of the Regional Fisheries Organisations (RFOs). 

As a member of the Regional Advisory Committee for long-distance fishing of the EU (LDRAC), we discussed issues related to the use of FADs with the whole of the industry and NGOs. The key recommendation that emerged is the need to adopt an international management plan for FADs, which must be applied at the level of all the tuna RFOs, in order to manage all their impacts, including on fishing capacity. 

This would require continuous collection of data about the use of FADs, to complement the existing compulsory data collection about the composition of the catches by size and species, the by-catches etc.

We asked the EU to endorse this recommendation and to promote this approach within all the tuna RFOs. 

Q: The EU is currently reforming its fisheries policy, and, concerning distant-water fishing policy, it proposes to define regional strategies. What do you think of that? 

It is essential to develop these regional strategies for tuna fishing. And such policies should also support efforts by the countries of a given region to harmonise their policies, particularly as regards conditions of access for distant-water fishing fleets, scientific cooperation, and the fight against illegal fishing.

Another aspect that should be considered by the partner countries of the EU, in particular those that have tuna FPAs with the EU, is how to develop specialisations within a region. Indeed, it is in nobody's interest to build similar processing plants everywhere if, ultimately, countries cannot operate them at full capacity. 

It would be beneficial through a dialogue between the coastal states to determine how the various benefits of operations by distant-water fishing fleets should be shared. If the setting up of processing plants is indeed a key question to examine within this framework, the payment of harmonised access costs, representing a fair share of the value of the catches, is another important element to be discussed at the regional level. 

Other proposals could also be looked into: some countries could specialise to become regional centres for training fishing observers or fishing crews; others could specialise in the Monitoring, Control and Surveillance, etc. What seems obvious is that the development of regional strategies for future European fisheries policy must take due account of the needs and priorities of our third-country partners as well as the constraints faced by the sector to ensure the sustainable exploitation of the resources.

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