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Commercial Fishing



Management of drifting fish aggregating devices. The time is now: address the lack of transparency and accountability associated with the use of Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) in the Atlantic Ocean.

The International Pole and Line Foundation (IPNLF) and the EU’s Outermost Regions Advisory Council (CCRUP) are urging the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) to agree on much needed improvements in the management of drifting fish aggregating devices (dFADs).

The ICCAT Intersessional Meeting tasked with the conservation and management of Atlantic Ocean tropical tunas (referred to as Panel 1), will be taking place next week for the first time since the pre-pandemic annual ICCAT meeting in 2019. One of the key issues that will be discussed is the urgent need to better manage drifting FADs that are being used by industrial tuna purse seiners to increase their catches.

Around 20.000 FADs¹ are reported to be deployed each year in the Atlantic Ocean by industrial purse seine fishing vessels, attracting large schools of tuna underneath them in the otherwise quite featureless open ocean. Up to 100m of netting or other materials are attached beneath each of these floating platforms, thereby creating micro-ecosystems dotted all over the ocean. The massive tuna purse seiners, some of them longer than 100 meters in length, use sophisticated satellite location devices and sonar to constantly keep track of their drifting-FADs and detect how much fish has aggregated under each of their many FADs. This has made their operations too efficient (so-called “effort creep”) and has consequently been a key driver of Atlantic bigeye tuna overfishing – a stock that has been overfished since 2015. ICCAT scientists have also warned that yellowfin tuna catches have exceeded the total allowable catch (TAC) by 13 – 20% over these last years, also putting the health of this population at risk.

As elsewhere in the world, there is an urgent need to improve the management of  drifting FADs in the Atlantic Ocean, primarily to reduce catches of juvenile tropical tunas, but also to help mitigate the other ecological impacts associated with drifting FADs, including marine plastic pollution, ghost fishing and the bycatch of turtles, sharks and marine mammals. It is also very likely that  the deliberate abandonment of FADs constitutes infringements of international maritime law and the lack of clarity around the ownership and legal status of these FADs should be addressed as a matter of priority.

In a recent Recommendation developed by the CCRUP, which is a formal advisory council to the European Commission and EU countries, the concerns of small-scale fishery stakeholders and NGOs regarding the excessive use of drifting FADs is clearly reflected: “We recommend a further reduction in the number of FADs allowed to be deployed/accessed/used per vessel, and their transparent registration and near real-time GPS tracking to be monitored by an independent body. Moreover, FADs should not be allowed to change ownership”, and “We dearly hope that the European Union can advocate for a precautionary, transparent, and accountable approach to FAD management globally.”

David Pavón, the Chairperson of the CCRUP Executive Committee, and a pole-and-line tuna fisher from the Canary Islands, adds:

“The EU’s Outermost Regions represent many traditional one-by-one tuna fisheries that highly depend on healthy tuna populations swimming through our coastal waters following their natural migratory routes. It is a disgrace that vulnerable, community-oriented fisheries like ours have to carry the burden of a problem caused by the uncontrolled increase of efficiency of the most industrialised fisheries. We really hope that ICCAT decision-makers can turn the tide by appropriately regulating harmful fishing methods while recognizing and protecting small-scale fisheries that use highly selective fishing gear.”

“One-by-one tuna fisheries provide for a vital source of food and contribute to the livelihoods of numerous coastal communities in at least sixteen Atlantic coastal States. Their future depends on ICCAT to stop the overfishing by industrial fleets and ensure small-scale fisheries have equitable access to both resources and markets, in conformity with international law. It is clear that the use of FADs have further increased the efficiency of industrial fleets leading to unsustainable pressure on tuna populations. It should not be acceptable that this destructive fishing method, for both tuna populations and the wider environment, continues to operate in the dark while making incredible (offshore) profits over cheap cans of tuna that come with an enormous hidden cost,” said Yaiza Dronkers, the Atlantic Region Manager at IPNLF