The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) is an intergovernmental organisation responsible for the management of tuna and tuna-like species in the Indian Ocean. Common to both the IOTC and FISH-i Africa is the desire to see the sustainable utilisation of the highly migratory fish resources in the Indian Ocean. In an interview with IOTC Compliance Coordinator, Gerard Domingue (GD), Stop Illegal Fishing looks at the role played by the IOTC in the region and the value of cooperation between the organisations.

The IOTC has played an important role in providing expert advice and information to the FISH-i Africa Task Force, since it was established. How did the IOTC get involved with FISH-i Africa?

GD: “FISH-i was initially set up in 2012, by like-minded people working on the ground to stop illegal fishing in the Western Indian Ocean Region. I was one of those people, and we all shared a feeling that we could all benefit from working more closely together and by sharing information within the region and between the neighbouring countries.

Initially FISH-i had five member countries; Comoros, Kenya, Mozambique, Seychelles and Tanzania and the addition of Madagascar, Mauritius and Somalia brings the current membership to eight. These are all coastal countries (four east African States and four island States) in the Western Indian Ocean and are all member States of the IOTC. This has led to the natural collaboration between IOTC and FISH-i Africa.”

What role does the IOTC play in FISH-i Africa?

GD: “The IOTC Secretariat has been supportive of the FISH-i Africa initiative, as we see that it serves to support IOTC members to further the objective of IOTC, to ensure the sustainable management of tuna and tuna-like species managed by the Commission. In line with this commitment I have participated in all of the meetings of the Task Force of FISH-i Africa.

As the eight FISH-i Africa Task Force members are also members of IOTC they are bound by its resolutions and committed to its objectives. The IOTC Secretariat are part of the Technical Team that supports the FISH-i Africa members, and as such we participate in meetings and contribute to the information-sharing portal to support due diligence checks on vessels and to provide guidance on any IOTC authorisations, resolutions or procedures that apply in different situations in the IOTC Area. Needless to say, the FISH-i Africa annual forum provides a terrific platform for further engagements between the IOTC Secretariat and the eight countries.”

How does the IOTC assess compliance levels? How is this reflected in the performance of the eight FISH-i members?

GD: “Compliance within IOTC is a relatively new area and was established to look at whether IOTC members and cooperating parties are complying with their reporting obligations. We are measuring the compliance of the countries and their obligations at a national level to monitor their vessels and report information to the IOTC. We are not measuring or evaluating levels of compliance by the vessel owners and operators to national legal frameworks; that is the role of the countries. The scientific information that we get from catch data is necessary to guide our management decisions, that in turn will impact on the sustainability of the stocks. Whilst overall levels of compliance are increasing the provision of mandatory statistics is where we have weaknesses.

The average compliance rate of the Commission itself has generally been on the increase over the years that the Commission has adopted the current methodology of assessing States’ compliance to their obligations. Focussing on the FISH-i countries as a subgroup of the IOTC, I have in the last three years provided FISH-i meetings with an overview of how these countries are faring in the implementation of their obligations to the IOTC. It is pleasing to note that the FISH-i countries have consistently remained above the average compliance rate of the Commission, as a whole. Therefore, it is clear that the FISH-i countries have contributed positively to raising the compliance level of the Commission. I would like to commend the countries themselves for the efforts invested in making this progress possible.”

Are there any concerns over the health of fish stocks in the IOTC region?

GD: “The most recent Scientific Committee took place in late 2018 and this indicated that most of the stocks are in fairly good state. There were some ongoing concerns about yellow-fin tuna, and the Commission has reacted to that and will look at it again this year, so there are some limitations in place to maintain the harvest within sustainable limits. The stocks that are of most concern, particularly for the coastal countries of East Africa are the coastal or neritic tuna. These fish are an important species group for commercial coastal fishing and small-scale fisheries and for these species there is a lack of catch data and information, so we do not have enough information for reliable modelling or stock assessment.

As an islander it is of particular importance for me to ensure that the stocks that are in the control of the IOTC members, both demersal and pelagic species, are healthy. It’s important that for the health of our people that the resource remains available for this generation and many more generations. Being there and playing a part is very personal and important to me.”

How does the Compliance Section of the IOTC work with its members?

GD: “As Head of the Compliance Section in the IOTC Secretariat it is my responsibility to bring the work of Commission closer to the countries. This has been achieved through several Compliance Support Missions undertaken in selected countries, including all the FISH-i Africa countries. These missions, which serve to remind the countries of their obligations to the Commission, were supported through the IOTC regular budget for capacity building, as well as through extra-budgetary contributions made by the following partners: the European Union; the IOC-SmartFish Project supported by the 10th European Union Development Fund (EDF); the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Oceans; the Common Oceans ABNJ Tuna Project, which is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) as the implementing agency and the World Bank’s SWIOFish Project. Besides the direct financial support for these missions, I would also like to recognise the support of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) for financially assisting the IOTC Secretariat to produce capacity building materials that are used during these missions.”

Why is regional cooperation so important to stopping illegal fishing?

GD: “Tunas are a highly migratory species, so no single country can claim to own any stocks of tuna as they swim through one EEZ today and another tomorrow. I believe there is a direct relationship between the levels of surveillance and controls that you put into managing your fisheries and the level of illegal activity. People being people they will always try to find a way to maximise their profits, and that is often through under declaration and trying to beat the system by faking identities of vessels and forging documents. The checks put in place by FISH-i, and particularly through the sharing of information, such as licence lists; inspection reports and vessel photographs makes a real difference to our ability to identify illegal operators.

As long as there are rogue actors plundering these resources and depriving coastal communities of the benefits of those resources, then there is a role for regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) like IOTC and for regional initiatives like FISH-i Africa, to make sure that the resources are there for coastal communities and for the future.”