More than half of the EU’s delegation to a crucial body of tuna stock regulators is made up of fishing industry lobbyists, the Guardian’s Seascape project can reveal, as Europe is accused of “neocolonial” overfishing in the Indian Ocean.
The numbers could shed some light on why the EU recently objected to an agreement by African and Asian coastal nations to restrict harmful fish aggregating devices (FADs) that disproportionately harvest juvenile tuna. Stocks of yellowfin tuna are overfished in the Indian Ocean.
FADs are large floating rafts that attract fish by casting a shadow, making it easy for vessels to catch massive numbers of tuna. They contribute to overfishing of yellowfin because they attract juveniles as well as endangered turtles, sharks and mammals that get caught up when the devices are encircled in purse seine nets.
In February, a proposal by Indonesia and 10 other coastal states in the region – including India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan – for a 72-day ban on FADs used by purse seine vessels was adopted by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), the main regulatory body. With a two-thirds majority vote, the measure was welcome by conservationists as a “huge win” for yellowfin and other marine life.
Retailers including Tesco, Co-op and Princes have previously issued calls for tough action to preserve and rebuild the $4bn yellowfin industry, while this year Marks & Spencer warned EU officials that FADs are a major cause of yellowfin tuna overfishing, and that they cripple future stocks.
The devices, typically made of plastic, also pollute the ocean and small island states when lost or discarded.
But earlier this month the EU, which is the largest harvester of tropical tuna in the region, objected to the measure, effectively exempting it from the restrictions. Critics described the move as “neocolonialism”, pointing to the influence of industry lobbyists from France and Spain in ignoring the will of many coastal nations.
At the last annual IOTC meeting, the EU’s 40-strong delegation was made up of at least 24 industry lobbyists listed as “advisers”, Guardian analysis shows. At the smaller special session on FADs this year, at least half of the 10 EU delegates were from the tuna industry.
The percentage of lobbyists in the EU’s official delegation has been rising since 2015, when yellowfin tuna was declared overfished by IOTC scientists. A report in January by Bloom, a French NGO, calculated that the annual number of industrial lobbyists within the EU delegation has more than doubled in recent years, rising from an average of eight in 2015 to 18 in 2021.
A European Commission official said, in a statement, that industry representatives have “no decision-making responsibility” at the IOTC, unlike commission officials. Policymaking at the IOTC relies on the European Green Deal objectives, the conservation of biodiversity and sustainability of stocks, and was more complex than the number or type of delegates, said the official. The EU tabled the largest number of proposals in 2022, including yellowfin management and FAD management, the statement said, adding that this was not what you might expect if “commercial interests dominated the EU position”.
Concerns over the European industry’s influence over Indian Ocean coastal states deepened following two proposals by Seychelles to the IOTC containing changes that appear to have been made by Europêche and other industry groups.
Jess Rattle, the head of investigations at the Blue Marine Foundation, said the EU’s actions flew in the face of commitments made at the historic high seas treaty, agreed last month to protect biodiversity. “The EU has entirely abandoned this sentiment in favour of plundering the Indian Ocean’s already overfished stocks, safe in the knowledge that, once all the fish are gone, its highly developed fleet can simply move to another ocean, unlike the many coastal states left behind with nothing.”
More than two-thirds of countries accepted the ban. But Seychelles, which has 13 EU-owned tuna vessels flagged to its state, also objected to the FAD proposal, along with Comoros, Oman, Kenya and the Philippines.
“Their objections can be seen as a form of neocolonialism by the EU,” said Rattle. “This measure was voted in at the IOTC, not just by a majority but a two-thirds majority. By objecting, and stirring up objections from their vassal states, the EU are making it clear they’re going to continue to fish the way they want to, regardless. That is disgraceful.”
Referring to the changes to Seychelles’ proposals by Europêche, Rattle said: “The industry appears to be making changes to proposals submitted by Seychelles. They clearly have power over this coastal state.”
Jeremy Raguain, a Seychellois conservationist and a negotiator for Seychelles in the high seas treaty talks, said his country is highly dependent on the EU, its largest trading partner, and on tuna exports. “We need a thriving tuna industry for economic survival, but it is environmentally unsustainable and only profitable through huge subsidies,” he said.
“Seychelles is in a tight spot. Indonesia has taken the right stance, but Seychelles is not Indonesia. There is neocolonial pressure.”
An official in the European Commission said the EU had already submitted a proposal “with a strong scientific basis” to reduce the number of FADs but that the IOTC “unfortunately” agreed to an alternative from Indonesia. The adopted proposal “lacks a scientific basis and would prove impossible to implement”, added the spokesperson, claiming it could have a “very substantial” negative impact on many fishers and communities.
A spokesperson for Europêche , which represents fishers in the EU as well as tropical tuna producers organisations – including the Europêche Tuna Group (ETG) – confirmed that some of its boats fly Seychelles’ flag.
“Seychelles consult ETG, as they also consult NGOs and other industries’ groups, on their proposal projects,” the spokesperson said. “It is then up to its government representatives to follow or not the different comments they receive.”
The Guardian approached authorities in Seychelles for comment but did not receive a response by publication time.