Malavika Vyawahare: Commercial Tuna Pirates

When we hear the term “resource curse,” it usually refers to the exploitation of countries with rich stores of natural resources like fossil fuels or widely coveted metals and minerals. Today, however, we are talking about protein. Some of the most beautiful, remote parts on the planet also produce some of its most unsustainable protein sources. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with environmental journalist Malavika Vyawahare from the distant Indian Ocean island of Réunion to discuss the devastating and corrupt practices surrounding the tuna fishing industry in that part of the world. We learn about the destructive practice using fish aggregating devices (or FADs), how ships from wealthy European nations like Spain and France are exploiting law-of-the-sea loopholes, and what steps are being taken to prevent the region’s fishery from being completed wiped out.

Narrator  0:02  This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Malavika Vyawahare (MV) 0:17  You don’t know what happens if the stock collapses, like what happens to the entire, like food chain? I mean, those things are just hypotheticals at this point, but maybe not. In the near future, they might not be hypothetical. So that’s something we need to keep in mind.

Narrator  0:34   When we hear the term resource curse, it usually refers to the exploitation of countries with rich stores of natural resources, like fossil fuels are widely coveted metals and minerals. Today, however, we’re talking about protein. Some of the most beautiful remote parts on the planet also produce some of its most unsustainable protein sources. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with environmental journalist Malavika Vyawahare, from the distant Indian Ocean island of Réunion to discuss the devastating and corrupt practices surrounding the tuna fishing industry in that part of the world. We learn about the destructive practice using fish aggregating devices or FADs. How ships from wealthy European nations like Spain and France are exploiting Law of the Sea loopholes, and what steps are being taken to prevent the region’s fishery from being completely wiped out?

Alex Wise (AW)  1:44  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Malavika Vyawahare, she is a journalist for MongaBay, and she’s talking to us from Reunion Island near the Mauritius islands. Now, Vika Welcome to Sea Change Radio. Thank you. Thank you for having me. So I want to discuss the very interesting reporting you’ve been doing for MongaBay from Réunion Island, right near the Mauritius islands. And it’s about overfishing in the relatively nearby seychelle Islands. Why don’t you first kind of summarize the problem that the fishing industry and tuna fish in particular are facing in this region of the Indian Ocean?

Malavika Vyawahare  (MV) 2:32  Right. So the stories that are reported for mongabay they basically look at this sort of really extractive industry that, you know, fisheries sector that operates here in the western Indian Ocean. And it looks at how, you know, over the decades, the over exploitation of this of tuna, in general and then Yellowfin, the elephant species, in particular has brought us to a point where you’re just really looking at a fish dock that’s really on the brink of collapse. As I say, in my piece, one of the assessments that’s done shows that it’s like five years away from from collapsing. And the obvious question is, you know, so who’s responsible for this? And this is really one of the main questions that I’ve tried to answer. And it’s not a simple question to answer, because there are multiple sort of players. But the EU has been a dominant player in this region for four decades now. And it dominates this fisheries really. And it’s not just that they are fishing as a distant fishing nation, operating their fish upgrading their fleet in this in this region, but also that a lot of the tuna that they are fishing is actually just being exported back to the EU. So you’re dominating the fishery sector in a major way. Which leads us to questions about whether the resources that belong to a particular country like Seychelles, in this case, how much they’re benefiting that, that country. And then also, you know, whether this kind of practices are sustainable, and what we can do sort of to get out of this mess. So now let’s unpack some of the practices that consumers and listeners should be aware of. Let’s start with FADs, these fish aggregating devices, why don’t you explain the problems that these FADs create? Right, what we need to understand about FADs is that one they are, you know, extensively use in tuna fisheries. FADs are pervasive. And they started off as and they continue to be fishing in in the sense that they they harness this, this peculiar sort of behavior of tuna and do not like fishes to aggregate around floating debris that’s found in the open, open ocean and the fishing industry has basically capitalized on this over the years, by not just relying on sort of natural debris that, you know, you find by chance out in the ocean, open ocean, but basically by, you know, deploying artificial debris to, to attract the tuna. So, you know, at some point fisheries might have been about, you know, going on out there fishing, you know, trying to go after the fish in some ways hunting for the fish. But with with the introduction of FADs that’s happened over a few decades now, what really happens is that the the vessels deploy or deploy these FADs, and they just wait, they wait for the tuna to come and congregate around the fad. And when when they do that, it’s just, it becomes very easy. It’s become really efficient to fish for tuna in this way. Because your chances of you know, coming back empty handed, just reduced so drastically because you’ve put out a device. And you have to remember that FADs are not just like just floating debris, they, over the years, they’ve become more sophisticated. So now they have like GPS trackers, they have sensors that are attached to these floating sort of devices. And the vessels can keep track of them. And they can figure out how much biomass is, you know, around that device. And they can know how many tons of fish they can catch. So it’s it’s made it very, very easy. And FADs are one of the big reasons why, you know, fishery has become more and more extractive over the years, because it’s just become easier to catch the fish.

AW – So Malavika. Let’s focus now on the issue of these European ships that are flying flags from other countries. What’s the problem there?

MV – Well, the problem is that, so the EU and countries that want to fish in the waters of other nations, so in this case, the Seychelles, they sign agreements with these countries, which essentially to begin with, we’re basically you’re some money, allow our vessels to fish in your waters. And we’ll you know, we’re paying you for that. So, just an agreement to allow for the exportation of sort of another country’s marine resources. Over the years, it’s become, you know, it’s more often to including sort of some sustainability considerations, etc. Now, the agreements that EU signs with countries like the Seychelles, they apply to vessels that fly the flag of EU states. So every vessel has a flag, and the flag determines what kind of laws and rules and regulations apply to that vessel. If you fly the flag of Seychelles, you’re technically considered the responsibility of Seychelles. And in the tuna sector, especially in this sort of the tuna fisheries. That’s operation in this region. There are vessels that are beneficially sort of owned by companies in Europe, but the vessels are flagged to Seychelles. And because they’re flagged to Seychelles, they don’t sort of have to follow the same rules and regulations as vessels that are flagged to the EU. And they are able to exploit for example, in the case of yellowfin tuna, the quota for a country like Seychelles, and it’s not insignificant. So if you really want to look at what the European tuna fisheries footprint is in the region, you would have to look at how much fish for example the the EU flagged boats are catching. But then you’d also have to look at how many how much fish this Asia flight boats are catching because, as I found through my reporting, there are 13 vessels that are flagged to the Seychelles, but actually every single one of them is owned or beneficially owned or ultimately controlled by a European company. So we will have to take into account how much Seychelles is catching also will have taken into account how much Mauritius is catching because the three boats that are flagged to Mauritius are also beneficially owned by by a French company. So I mean it’s so it just builds obesity in the in the fishery sector and and that becomes a problem when you’re trying to sort of get more sustainable fishing or trying to deal with a problem like FADs and the amount of pollution, pollution they’re catching. It’s really like a sustainability issue. And also, some people have called it like a sort of a NEO colonial system because here is a country that has its resources, but it’s not able to exploit them. And then you have a bigger sort of player like you coming in and exploiting those resources. And it just raised a lot of questions about how much the smaller either nations like Seychelles and Mauritius are getting out of this arrangement.

(Music break)

AW  10:56  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Malavika Vyawahare, she is a journalist. And she’s written a series for mongabay on Indian Ocean tuna fishing. So Malavik, How can policymakers from countries like Spain, France and the Seychelles work together to improve the current situation in some of the world’s largest fisheries like you’re explaining?

MV Right – So the first thing, of course to do is just have greater transparency. There’s a lot of talk about, you know, becoming more transparent regards with regards to beneficial ownership. And these agreements that are signed between states, and then states and private parties, there just needs to be more transparency. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that the EU does have to treat the smaller nations as equal partners and take into account the concerns about long term sustainability that, that are raised by, you know, civil society organizations can conservationists in those countries, the EU s Seychelles sfpa pass for the first time in an agreement. That’s the sixth installation of the agreement between the EU and Seychelles with regard to fisheries, they did it for the first time last last year that they included sustainability concerns, which is incredible in itself, if you think about it, because it’s three decades that the EU fish boats are fishing, these are really large fishing and industrial fishing boats have been operating and, you know, sustainability is has been introduced into the agreement for the first time last year, you know that that’s a small move. But you know, this, there just has to be more of that that’s incorporated and built into these agreements. And then of course, there has to be more better implementation. Also, because as I mentioned, like spatial fac ships are the responsibility of the Seychelles. But if they’re owned by companies that are not even based in the in the island, you know, it just just really does raise questions of how much control or your regulatory regulatory power Seychelles has over those boats. And lastly, there has to be less of finger pointing in some ways, because the RFM mode, the regional fisheries management organization here in the western notion is the Indian Ocean tuna commission. And if you see that they had their most recent sort of meetings about yellowfin tuna, which is facing a collapse in a couple of years in March, and the meeting didn’t come up with any resolutions because there was just a lot of pointing blame and shifting blame. The member states just have to do a better job of like regulating the boats that fish in their waters or our flock to them. The other variable we haven’t discussed is the end result and consumers and corporations influence over how they fish tuna and and other fish that are beginning to be quite distressed in terms of their populations. How can the corporate world make an impact into making these changes so that tuna don’t go extinct and other fish as well? I’ll just go I’ll go into like a specific example of FADs here because I think that sort of shows you a little bit about, you know what hinders you know, our path towards more sustainable fisheries. There’s been growing evidence that FADs are a problem. They cause pollution, they are plastic, heavy boats, deploy these pads and sort of leave them there in many ways. They have no incentive to retrieve them retrieve them. They cause another problem, they they attract not just adult fish, they’re also attract juveniles. So if you’re sort of fishing out the juveniles from population, there’s a higher risk of that population facing out facing or collapse. Now, these problems have been documented over many, many years. And the FADs have been an issue that come up, you know, in discussions at the iotc, at the regional fisheries management organization for many years now. And the solution that was put forward was to have bio FADs, which are like FADs that are, they don’t lead to entanglement of marine species like turtles and sharks. And they are not made of such a lot of non biodegradable material like plastics. The industry has, has really sat on that there was just no sort of willingness to adopt this as quickly as possible. There was no sense of urgency in adopting sort of bio FADs. And also, it seems like phasing out FADs is also not seen as an option by the industry, because it’s just so profitable for them to continue using FADs. So I mean, when the companies sort of seek certification, increasingly, because of like, just public, I guess, awareness about sustainability issues around indian indian ocean tuna, the sustainability sort of certifications, they require that they move way, like from Fides on sustainable practices like using fad, so it doesn’t just have to be lip service, because you know, the consumers, you there’s a fear of losing a market, I think there has to be sort of a real commitment towards, you know, sustainable fisheries from these companies, just because also, I mean, ultimately, it’s in their own interests to have sort of healthy stocks that they, so they can take cancer of be able to tap into for years to come instead of, because you have to understand that the EU fleet, for example, and this is an important point to understand, they moved into the Indian Ocean about three decades ago, because you know, there they were facing sort of declining or plateauing profits in the Atlantic and elsewhere and Indian Ocean was still sort of a rich ground for tuna fisheries, it cannot be a short term strategy of just moving in and then overexploiting and then leaving when when the stocks are not viable anymore. So this this kind of like short term sort of thinking has to has to end and consumers can really sort of, I think make a difference.

AW  16:13  – How do you recommend consumers try to impact this stark reality?

MV – I guess they just have to sort of, in some ways bought with their money, they have to they have to be ready to actually also pay more for fish that sustainably got and to demand of their of their suppliers to in some ways to source from places that are more, you know, willing to abide, abide by the rules. I mean, there is some talk about Biden boycotting Indian Ocean fisheries. And it’s, it’s a difficult sort of question because there are livelihoods at stake in this part of the world as well. And the choices that are made in really in the US and Europe may or may not affect populations here and the SEC, the fishery sector here, so I guess you have to be careful about how far you would push it, but but really, whatever little change, I guess industry is ready to make has come because it seems that when there are surveys done and balls down about demand, at least there are people who are saying that we don’t want this kind of fish that’s unsustainably fished.

(Music Break)

AW  19:19  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Malavika Vyawahare. So you have a very interesting graphic in this MongaBay piece that shows who controls the person fleets in the Seychelles by country. Can the United Nations get involved in trying to curb and better regulate these fleets and how they’re benefiting from flying flags from other countries when they’re there? They’re almost tuna pirates, if you will.

MV – 20:00  Right. So the UN is already in a way involved because the RFMos, the regional fisheries management organizations, for set up as part of the UN clause, the treat the treaty. So the RFMos are really the the bodies that are responsible for, you know, managing, or bringing together the countries that are stakeholders in all of this. And there they are, they don’t have as much power as they should, for sure. They rely on like countries to implement all the rules and regulations. And this issue would like flags of convenience, except rights, and, you know, being based in having companies headquartered in places where they have to pay like no taxes. I mean, it’s, it’s really kind of pervasive in the ship, the fisheries and the shipping sort of industry. So if countries exercise or have more, you know, more control over entities that are based within their borders, for example, like the companies that are based in France, France, and Spain, the French and Spanish governments could have sort of control over or lean on them in some ways. But the fact is, they haven’t unfortunately, in fact, they subsidize some of these companies, which are involved in overfishing. So it’s hard to see how that might play out. But really, the, the trick is, really, I think, to strengthen the RFM O’s, and to give like coastal states, greater say, in how their resources are being managed, but also, you know, to push for sustainability, the civil society organizations within those countries have to ensure that it’s not just about profits, even for the coastal states themselves. And this is happening a little bit, I want to say I really want to highlight the fact that Seychelles recently became one of the first countries to launch a report under like an initiative called the fisheries industry, transparent Transparency Initiative, 50, they put out a report talking about a lot of the for the agreements, etc. And I think more of the more of these countries need to do that. I think transparency is important. They are they are really be pushing hard to have more, just putting out all these arrangements and agreements into, into public view. And then of course, like on the blocks like you can can make a huge difference, because they are the ones there’s a lot of money flowing in from the EU. So if the EU decides really to pull its weight, something could be done.

AW And one aspect that we didn’t really touch on is how these governments like in Spain are subsidizing these forms of unsustainable fishing using things like FADs.

MV – Yeah, right. I mean, in, there’s one thing, right, the agreements that are signed between you and the Seychelles, there is a chunk of the money that you is paying to the Seychelles, that’s coming from the EU itself, and not from the ship owners who are benefiting the ones who are fishing. So that money is actually EU taxpayer money. And if the fishing companies are not, or are involved in unsustainable fisheries, so that just basically means that the EU taxpayer money is going into supporting unsustainable fisheries practices. And the other thing is that the EU, because buying it’s by itself, the fishery sector, at least you fleets would not be profitable, they might not even be viable without the EU putting in subsidies, the subsidies are given to these companies, they are able to upgrade their fleets, etc. But that those sort of upgradations those that increase in fishing capacity, has allowed those fleets to actually go out and overfishing not just, you know, the Indian Ocean, there are other regions that are also facing the similar problem. So, yeah, it’s, instead of like curbing them, it just seems to be promoting this kind of unsustainable practices. And I mean, this is going to be an important issue going forward, because for a while the EU was moving towards reducing subsidies that are deemed for harmful in the sense that they were leading to overfishing and unsustainable fishing. But then it recently decided that it might be reintroducing some of the subsidies that some scientists have said are really just going to be disastrous for for fisheries. In many parts of the world. There is a lot of money that’s being made. There’s definitely like value addition going on from when the tuna cod to when they’re sold in cans, but you know that there is a lot of money being made in the middle. And if you’re not paying enough, for example, to a country like Seychelles, which is really the country that’s ultimately responsible for taking off like the fish dock, that that’s that exists in their water, then the money can just be going into lining the pockets of the companies, they have to go to the countries that that are responsible for taking care of the of the fish dock, and ensuring like sustainability and regulating those ships.

AW – And we haven’t even touched on the Pacific fishing practices. I lived in Japan a long time. And I know that that country values its seafood, more than almost any culture in the world and had a friend who was like a broker for tuna and like a big tuna would be caught and flown into Tokyo and there would already be bidding on this one animal before it arrived at the docks. So is it still relevant to the discussion because the tuna don’t differentiate between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean?

MV – Yeah, and in general, like just the commodification of the fish. I mean, I know we’re talking about like numbers, etc. But really, this is like a fish stock. And, you know, no matter who makes more money, I mean, I’m not saying Seychelles should make more money. I’m just saying that if they had more money, they maybe do a better job of like implementation, etc. and you don’t know what happens if the stock collapses, like what happens to the entire like, food chain. I mean, it’s those things are just hypotheticals at this point, but maybe not. In the near future. They might not be hypothetical. So that’s something we need to keep in mind. And these fed tuna usually are not labeled as a sustainable choice. So that makes it a little easier for consumers. But most tuna isn’t being consumed by people picking it out of the grocery store. There’s so many variables in terms of the way tuna fish is used as an ingredient at restaurants and cooking and it takes a lot of consciousness to break this status quo, doesn’t it? Yeah, the biggest tuna camrys is in Seychelles, the Indian Ocean do not honorary decision of a government has like a minority stake in it. It’s majorly owned by a union group, which is a foreign player. So basically the huge ships bring in the tuna to this cannery, they the tuna is processed there and then they ship it out from there to to EU like most of the demand is from the EU so in some ways like the Seychelles is just like you know holding they they don’t really figure that most they don’t make a lot of they’re not really benefiting any any way from this this whole chain which is why there’s there’s more discussion about it in Seychelles and there’s growing concern about that as well. Yeah, hopefully, like I said of the civil society organizations become strengthen in this coastal states. It might benefit the whole industry.

AW – Malavika Vyawahare, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

MV – Thanks, Alex. It’s a pleasure speaking with you.

Narrator  28:17  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Morcheeba, Esther Phillips and The Radiators, check out our website at Sea Change to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcasts. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week. As we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.

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