Tuna could disappear from Indian Ocean as demand for sushi rises

Fisherman carries a dead tuna fish, photo: Reuters/Tarmizy Harva
Fisherman carries a dead tuna fish, photo: Reuters/Tarmizy Harva

Demand for sushi and canned tuna fish in North America, Europe and Asia is killing the yellowfin tuna at a rapid rate in the Indian Ocean.

Environmentalists say tuna is at risk of extinction from overfishing. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has the species on its “Red List”.

The animals are being killed before they can reproduce, which means they’re heading for extinction. The global catch has risen by about a third, to nearly 450,000 metric tons annually, according to the London-based Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) advocacy group.

In recent years, scientists have proven that fish feel pain. “Fish have had a few hundred million years to figure things out. We’re newcomers. I find it astonishing that many people seem shocked at the idea that fish feel,” oceanographer Sylvia Earle told The Guardian.

And yet, human’s need for sushi and canned fish keeps growing. Demand for yellowfin tuna is booming in North America, Europe and Asia.

France and Spain are to blame
The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), with members from 30 countries, is debating how to save the yellowfin tuna in the coming five days.

French and Spanish fishing fleets take the majority of fish, using industrial methods such as “purse seine” with huge nets that often catch juvenile yellowfin.

Coastal nations want to limit Europe’s distant-water fleets. Kenya and Sri Lanka, for example, want a stop on the use of devices such as fish aggregators: floating objects that attract tuna and other species towards nets.

“They are the visitors,” said Will McCallum, Head of Oceans at environmental group Greenpeace UK, of the European fleets. “They are fishing at a far larger capacity than anybody else, and it’s not an equitable state of affairs.”

McCallum said the overfishing issue had stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic, and drastic action was needed immediately to avoid irrecoverable damage to the species.

Catastrophic consequences
The Maldives wants the yellowfin catch to be cut by 15% from 2015 levels, when IOTC scientists first agreed they were being overfished.

Given that a new stock assessment will not be ready until the end of 2021, the commission may postpone new measures, according to BLUE. “For a stock (tuna) that is at risk of collapse, this delay could prove catastrophic,” it said in a statement.

Last year, British supermarkets Tesco and Co-op and Belgian retailer Colruyt pledged to stop buying Indian Ocean yellowfin unless there’s a concrete plan on how to stop overfishing.

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