Overfishing Threatens Tuna Stock


This is the second in a series of five articles based on a recent World Bank (WB) report on the Sri Lanka fishery sector.

While the first article gave a broad overview of the industry, this, the second focuses on the depletion of the tuna stock and the threat that this deleterious development is causing to the industry as a whole. Meanwhile, the third in this series of articles gives a brief overview of the potentialities of the coastal fishing industry, the fourth on the shrimp industry and the fifth and the last, the potentiality of the ornamental fish industry and the way forward for the industry as a whole.

Nonetheless, a glaring omission in this WB report is that it overlooks the repercussions that Indian fisher poaching is causing to the local fishery industry as a whole. This WB report which was out in September 2021 doesn’t, ipso facto, take into account Sri Lanka declaring itself insolvent on 12 April 2022 and its impact on the fishery sector.

A key constraint to increasing export revenues is the overfished status of the Yellowfin Tuna (YFT) stock in the Indian Ocean, which precludes an increase in the harvest by Sri Lanka or any other country, the WB in a recent document warned.

The WB, in a publication titled ‘Priorities for Sustainably Managing Sri Lanka’s Marine Fisheries, Coastal Aquaculture, and the Ecosystems that Support Them,’ dated   September 2021, but released on the WB website only on 3 March 2022, further said Sri Lanka made an export revenue of US$ 299 million in 2019.

Multiday fisheries (MDF) take place offshore in Sri Lanka’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and in the high seas, targeting tuna and billfish – but, while only 16 per cent of tuna landings meet export quality standards, they contributed 45 per cent of the fishery sector export revenue in 2019, the WB said.

Consequently, post-harvest value loss in the MDF subsector causes forgone rent and export revenues, the avoidance of which would increase the sector’s contribution to GDP, it warned.

It should however, be noted that the Sri Lankan MDF fleet is ill-equipped to prevent post-harvest quality losses during what are now multi-week trips, the WB further said.

With only about 16 per cent of tuna landings currently being exported, there is significant potential to increase their value and export revenues without increasing catch, or potentially while decreasing catch. Sri Lanka’s approximately 4,800 MDF vessels are relatively small and not equipped with adequate refrigeration or freezing equipment, the WB however said.

They fish for weeks at a time, not days, reducing significantly the quality of their catch, making the majority unsuitable for export. While the domestic market can absorb these volumes, landed prices are significantly lower, it said.

Two mutually reinforcing factors drive this situation: (a) the growth in the fleet from 1,300 in 2005 to nearly 5,000 vessels today and (b) the overfishing of Yellowfin and Bigeye across the region, making it harder for each vessel to catch fish.

A smaller fleet of larger vessels that could freeze tuna at ultra-low temperature levels could catch the same amount or fewer fish, the WB said. Most, if not all, of the catch would meet the demanding standards of high-value export markets, it added.

“Sri Lanka’s MDF target primarily tuna and billfish, the largest contributors to Sri Lanka’s fish exports,” the WB said. In 2019, Yellowfin Tuna (YFT), Bigeye Tuna and Skipjack Tuna together accounted for 50 per cent and 45 per cent of Sri Lanka’s fish exports in quantity and value, it said.

The billfishes, including swordfish, marlins and sailfish are the second largest group in the multiday fisheries catch and are also largely exported. Sri Lanka’s YFT catch is about the fifth largest in the Indian Ocean, of note is the difference in gear used.

But one of the paramount factors creating uncertainty for the future of the multiday fishery is weak regional governance of the tuna fishery, the WB said. Tuna are highly migratory and in accordance with the United Nations Law of the Sea require management by an intergovernmental body, which for the Indian Ocean is the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC).

The IOTC is made up of member states with diverse economic interests, making it difficult to reach a consensus. As a result, the IOTC has had limited success preventing overfishing of YFT in the Indian Ocean or agreeing on how to rebuild the YFT stock.

Moreover, many members also face challenges complying with binding regional agreements, further weakening prospects for regional governance capable of charting a course to sustainability within the next few years.

The longer it takes the IOTC to reach an agreement, the greater the declines in fish biomass, the harder it becomes for Sri Lankans to catch fish, and the longer it will take to rebuild stocks to healthy levels, the WB warned. At their annual meeting in June 2021, most members of the IOTC, including Sri Lanka, agreed on new measures consistent with scientific recommendations to rebuild the YFT stock.

How effective the new measures will be is in question, however, since consensus among IOTC members was not reached and universal compliance is therefore uncertain, the WB said. In response to this situation and broader consumer awareness, high-value markets are shifting their sourcing of tuna to fisheries with better environmental, social, and quality attributes, creating market risk for the multiday fleet.

“In fact, the IOTC has called for further reductions in allowable catch. This is an opportunity for Sri Lanka to rekindle its leadership role among the Indian Ocean G-16 countries and become more active in the design of IOTC resolutions on tuna governance,” the WB said.

During the period from 2015 to 2019, on average, Sri Lanka’s YFT catches accounted for about eight per cent of total YFT catches in the Indian Ocean, the WB said. Year 2020 is discounted due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Market access

“For most catches, Sri Lanka uses long lines as gear, while some other large contributors of YFT catches use purse seines (such as the European Union, Seychelles) and gillnets (such as Iran) which have a greater proportion of bycatch, including sensitive and protected species such as marine mammals,” the WB said.

Access to high-value markets in Europe and North America is increasingly conditioned on demonstrable progress toward sustainable management of fisheries, the WB said. Nongovernmental organisations in some of Sri Lanka’s export markets have begun to urge consumers to avoid YFT sourced from the Indian Ocean to reduce the pressure on the overfished stock, it said.

Specifically, a number of retailers and food companies have announced they would be reducing the amount of Yellowfin Tuna that they are sourcing from the Indian Ocean until their concerns about overfishing and the lack of an effective regional rebuilding plan are addressed, the WB said.

In addition, recently several supermarkets and brands in the United Kingdom have taken a voluntary action to cut their sourcing of YFT from the Indian Ocean by half, with the aim of pressuring the IOTC to ramp up its regulatory efforts to rebuild the YFT stock.

This move reflects the market’s continued and growing interest in sustainability certification, such as through the Marine Stewardship Council, the WB said. This creates marketing opportunities for companies and countries that decide to take their fisheries down the eco-labelling path.

It would be important for Sri Lanka and its private sector to explore opportunities for enhanced market access or price premia, building on their efforts through the ongoing Longline Fishery Improvement Project (FIP), the WB advised. At the same time, Sri Lanka has successfully accessed secondary markets in recent years to reduce its market risk, even though the unit price received for these markets is lower, it warned.

(Next Week: Coastal Fishery Responsible for 57% of Marine Catch)

SL has 50,591 fishing boats

Of the 50,591 fishing boats registered with the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Department (FARD) in 2018, 91 per cent were small-scale coastal fishing vessels. Coastal fisheries operate from more than 900 anchorages and landing sites located within estuaries or lagoons or on the exposed coastline. A variety of fishing gear is used, including seine nets, hook and line, gillnets, jigs and traps, it said.

About 4,800 vessels or nine per cent of Sri Lanka’s fishing fleet are used in multiday fisheries (MDF) and most are less than 15 metres in length, with limited capacity to preserve product quality on long trips of multiple weeks.

The number of boats participating in multiday fisheries (MDF) has grown from about 1,300 vessels in 2005 to more than 4,800 in 2019. The present fleet is specifically designed to operate for several days within the Sri Lankan exclusive economic zone (EEZ), however, much of the fleet today operates for multiple weeks at a time, with some licensed to operate beyond the EEZ (high seas) and others required to operate exclusively within national jurisdiction.

The multiday fleet also faces a growing market risk because Western retailers are shifting their preferences to tuna with better environmental, social, and quality attributes, resulting in actions such as cutting back purchases of YFT from the Indian Ocean, the publication warned.

As such, the long-term financial and economic viability of the Sri Lankan MDF is directly linked to the success of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) in adopting and the contracting parties in effectively implementing a regional robust stock rebuilding plan, it advised.

Nevertheless, Sri Lanka can increase export revenues and jobs from the MDF while staying within IOTC boundaries by applying a combination of mutually reinforcing strategies, the WB said.

Sri Lanka has an opportunity to retain and increase its market share in lucrative Western markets by (a) building on its progress to date in complying with IOTC resolutions on YFT governance, including by better addressing illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, (b) modernising and restructuring the MDF fleet and (c) investing in the landing infrastructure, it said.

Together, these interventions offer a potential to reduce postharvest loss and thus enhance export revenues and jobs without increasing catch or, potentially, while decreasing catch. One opportunity is to refit existing vessels with refrigeration capacity when it makes financial sense, the WB said.

Meanwhile, initial financial analyses, carried out under these advisory services and analytics (ASA), based on a survey of 378 MDF vessels of all five size categories, indicate that investments in retrofitting onboard refrigeration systems combined with potential price markups from certified traceability and sustainability could be profitable for the largest (category 5) vessels, it said.

Measures that reduce trip duration, improving onboard handling practices by continuing training initiatives already initiated and improving the quality of ice used on board would also greatly improve fish quality and price, the WB said. Further analysis and piloting of technology and techniques are necessary to validate these initial findings. Another challenge that requires scientific study is fish loss experienced by long-liners because of predator fish, it said.

Frozen tuna

Nonetheless, high-end tuna markets increasingly require tuna frozen on vessels at ultra-low temperatures (ULT), a technology that would not be feasible for most, if any, of Sri Lanka’s current MDF fleet, the WB admitted.

But, in the long run, transitioning the fleet to larger vessels with ULT capacity would likely not create more fishing jobs because of their higher efficiency, but the construction, maintenance, and servicing of the vessels would likely lead to new and better jobs, the WB advised.

Research and development (R&D) to support shifting fishing effort to healthy stocks such as swordfish and skipjack using sustainable methods, and introducing value-added products from lower-value tuna species also carry the potential for increased export revenues and processing jobs, it said.

A vessel monitoring system (VMS) has been mandatory for vessels operating on the high seas since 2016, coinciding with a requirement from a lucrative export market like the European Union. The fleet principally uses long lines and gillnets, however, 42 per cent of the vessels used a combination of gear. Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) is working with owners of vessels operating in the high seas fishery to transition these vessels to long line-only operations by introducing mechanised line haulers. As of 2020, Sri Lanka did not operate purse seine boats targeting tropical tuna. The vast majority of the multiday fleet is based out of harbours in the south and west, close to the fishing grounds, which are managed by the parastatal Ceylon Fishery Harbours Corporation (CFHC).

It is worth noting that there are also 50 Sri Lanka–flagged long-liners on the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) approved list with a length greater than 20 metres, of which 23 are greater than 24 metres.

These vessels are of Asian origin/ownership, operate under the Sri Lankan Flag and land frozen tuna for export at the harbour in Dikkowita (one of the few harbours deep enough to accommodate vessels of this size).

By Paneetha Ameresekere