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Russia isn’t alone in stealing food — the EU does it too

Charles Clover is executive director and co-founder of the Blue Marine Foundation. His new book, “Rewilding the Sea: How to Save our Oceans,” will be published by Witness Books on June 8.

Russia stands accused of weaponizing food supplies and of stealing grain from Ukraine in the occupied territories of the Donbas region.

But Russia isn’t alone in stealing food from vulnerable nations. Evidence suggests European Union fishing fleets have been doing this too — and for quite some time.

According to an investigation using official data provided by Brussels to the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission — an intergovernmental body responsible for managing the region’s tuna stocks — EU-owned fishing vessels, mainly Spanish, appear to have been netting tuna from the waters of poorer nations in the Indian Ocean without permission for years. 

A study commissioned from the marine analysts at OceanMind by the chief investigator of the charity I head, Blue Marine Foundation, found evidence suggesting EU fleets had been fishing in the waters of Somalia and India in 2017, 2018 and 2019. There were also traces of them fishing in the waters off Mozambique, where EU vessels can’t currently fish, and in the Chagos Marine Protected Area, a British territory. 

Sources close to the governments of Somalia and India say no fishing by these vessels was authorized, even under the notoriously shady private arrangements tuna companies can sometimes strike with developing nations. But in response to Blue Marine’s study, the Europêche fishing association flatly denied any EU vessels have been fishing in the waters of any developing country without prior agreement. 

The probe also examined data from EU vessels’ automatic identification system (AIS), only to find that some EU fishing vessels had “gone dark” for most of the two-year study. 

AIS is a requirement of EU regulations — and international maritime law —as a safety tool to prevent collisions. Even in parts of the Western Indian Ocean demarcated as “high risk” due of the threat of piracy, the best practice recommendation by marine authorities is that AIS remains on. 

Blue Marine Foundation first reported this finding to the European Commission in 2019, but to no avail. 

Stealing fish from the waters of poorer nations would be a disgrace at the best of times. But these are certainly not the best of times in the Indian Ocean, where yellowfin tuna has been overfished since 2015. And if the stock on which countless coastal communities depend for their food security is to recover, yellowfin catches need to be cut by almost a third — or roughly 130,000 metric tons — from what they were in 2020.   

The chosen fishing method of EU-owned vessels — mainly flagged to Spain and France,  as well as coastal states like Mauritius and Seychelles — involves deploying a large surrounding net, called a seine, around shoaling fish. It hangs vertically in the water, with its bottom held down by weights and its top edge buoyed by floats. These seine nets are often set around floating rafts with long “tails,” called FADs, which attract fish.  

It’s estimated that 97 percent of the yellowfin tuna caught like this in the Indian Ocean are juveniles.  

EU delegates recently participated in talks that were meant to come up with a recovery plan for this problem of overfished yellowfin. However, delegates from Indian Ocean nations and the foreign fleets failed to agree on a 30 percent reduction, which would actually make tuna recovery possible. Unlike the proposal put forward by the Maldives — which tried admirably during the talks to bring catches down — the EU’s proposal put forward no further catch reductions this year.  

The EU also argued against the adoption of a temporary closure of the ocean to drifting FADs — despite substantial support for restrictions from coastal nations — which would have hugely cut the attrition rate of juvenile tuna. 

We’ve been here before: In the early 2000s, the Commission’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries was far too influenced by officials who were largely sympathetic to the fishing nations, and failed to prevent over-fishing of Atlantic bluefin tuna.   

A huge public campaign was then mounted to save the bluefin from extinction, and under the leadership of the redoubtable Maria Damanaki, the EU fisheries chief from 2010 to 2014, there was a large shake-up. Thanks to these efforts, Atlantic bluefin are now turning up all over, including in the waters of the English Channel, off Ireland, Scotland and even Norway, where they haven’t been seen for decades.   

The current Commissioner for Environment, Oceans, and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevičius needs to follow Damanaki’s example. 

The EU’s heavily subsidized fleet has almost no ethical justification for fishing in the Indian Ocean at all, other than precedents established in colonial times. And it’s taking the largest percentage of catches, at a time when stocks are in serious trouble. But if the EU-owned fleets’ catch were left in the water, the Indian Ocean would actually be on the road to recovery.   

They should get out.

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