In 2019, when Jeremy Raguain turned up for a cleanup campaign on Aldabra Atoll, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, he bagged a marine monstrosity like no other: a beached fish aggregating device, or FAD.
It was a massive tangle of buoys, netting and fishing ropes weighing hundreds of kilograms. The fishing aid, like most FADs, was made of a floating raft and an underwater trail. More than 80% of the plastic garbage washed up on the Indian Ocean atoll, home to Seychelles’ iconic giant tortoises, is fishing-related, Raguain, a Seychellois marine conservationist, and his team estimated.
Vessels from Spain and France have for decades exploited Seychelles’ abundant tuna stock and left waste behind in its waters. “It’s not to say that they’re the sole culprits. But they are by far the largest,” said Raguain, who co-led the cleanup effort on Aldabra.
Purse seine tuna-fishing vessels release thousands of FADs into the seas every year, abandoning many of them there. When forsaken FADs drift ashore, it falls on volunteers and environmentalists like Raguain to clean up after industrial fishing fleets. He and five team members spent an entire day under the scorching Seychellois sun dismantling that one monster FAD.
“Aldabra is covered in trash because there’s a massive tuna fishing industry in the region, many of which are big EU companies that are exporting all this tuna to EU and all around the world,” said April Burt, a marine scientist at the University of Oxford who co-led the garbage collection with Raguain. “They’ve been dumping this fishing waste with impunity.”
European-owned purse seiners haul in tuna; a Thai cannery in Seychelles processes most of it and then exports it to Europe.
Questions about FADs are part of a larger debate about the sustainability of industrial tuna fisheries. Indian Ocean fisheries are a major supplier of the $8.5 billion annual global canned tuna market. At least one stock, the yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares), is only a few years away from collapse, and FADs are partly to blame.
‘Addicted to FAD fishing’
FADs have revolutionized tuna fisheries; instead of chasing after tuna, fishers can now lure them with FADs. Everywhere there is industrial tuna fishing, there are FADs. In the Indian Ocean, about 80% of tuna is caught using FADs today.
They work because tuna and its ilk dig floating debris. Driven by some undeciphered instinct, the fish gather around FADs in the thousands. This makes them easy targets for fishers who would otherwise have to scour unmarked oceanic expanses to spot free-swimming schools. FADs freed them from the drudgery and vagary of this modus operandi.
Until a few decades ago, fisherfolk were content to employ natural driftwood to attract fish. But in time, industrial fishing vessels began to deploy FADs more regularly and the fishing aids became more and more sophisticated. Now, many FADs are equipped with GPS transmitters and echo sound sensors, which relay their locations and the number of fish in their orbits in real time. The vessels can then home in on the most promising FADs.
“It is comfortable fisheries; you can look at your potential catch, follow it and never miss your set,” said Alain Fonteneau, a tuna fisheries expert who worked for decades at France’s National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD).
The convenience has come at a cost. FADs have invaded oceans across the planet, contributing to the rising tide of plastic pollution.
Purse seine vessels that depend on FADs are some of the world’s largest industrial fishing boats. Seine nets, up to 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) long if laid out flat, encircle the fish school and close at the bottom like a drawstring purse. A single large purse seine vessel can deploy hundreds of FADs. There is not enough data about how many FADs are released into the sea globally, but researchers put the number at around 100,000 a year.
It could be higher, experts say.
The EU delegation for Mauritius and Seychelles said in an e-mailed statement to Mongabay that it could not share data about the number of FADs its Indian Ocean fleet uses because of “business confidentiality.”
An Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) report analyzed the origins of 115 FADs recovered in Seychelles’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in 2015 and traced more than three-quarters of them to Spanish-owned vessels. The rest came from French-owned ships.
Spain and France have operated purse seine fleets in Seychellois waters since the mid-1980s. There are currently 15 Spain-flagged and 12 France-flagged purse seiners in the Indian Ocean. But the EU’s dominance of tuna fisheries in the region is also explained by European control of vessels flagged to other states.
Of the 13 purse seine vessels that sail under the Seychelles flag, 11 have beneficial owners in Spain and the remaining two in France. A 2019 study found that Seychelles-flagged purse seiners fish almost exclusively on FADs.
“The Spanish are heavily addicted to FAD fishing because FAD fishing is so efficient. They save fuel, money and time,” Nirmal Shah, chief executive of the nonprofit Nature Seychelles and former head of the Seychelles Fishing Authority, told Mongabay.
Claiming unintended victims
It’s more than a numbers problem.
Immense tuna schools have swiveled for millennia between their feeding and spawning grounds. In doing so, they redistribute nutrients over entire oceans. Some scientists say the FADs mushrooming in their habitat can alter everything from their migration patterns to spawning behavior, skewing instincts shaped by millions of years of evolution.
They could also be leading other fish astray.
FADs don’t attract only tuna; they draw other fish species too. Purse seine vessels fishing near FADs are estimated to capture five times more fish from non-target species, or bycatch, than when they’re fishing free-schooling tuna.
Even more worryingly, they draw in juveniles that haven’t reached sexual maturity. The capture of too many juveniles that will never reproduce leaves populations in danger of collapse. It is one of the reasons the Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna stock could be only a few years from crashing.
The IOTC, the regional intergovernmental agency that regulates tuna fisheries, has set catch limits for yellowfin tuna since 2016. Both the EU and Seychelles fleets have breached these limits in recent years.
“A large percentage of the Spanish catch is juveniles, they catch millions of them. It is a scandal,” Shah said. “In our own small-scale fisheries we have been telling local fishermen for years that there are size limits. Yet, we are allowing massive vessels to vacuum juveniles from the Indian Ocean.”
Seychelles lies smack in the middle of the western Indian Ocean tuna migration route. The country is comprised of more than 100 islands that stitch together an EEZ of 1.37 million square kilometers (529,000 square miles). It’s a marine area more than three times the size of California, and provides the largest tuna catch in the Indian Ocean.
Drifting FADs, the kind that purse seiners mostly use, are not deterred by state borders, nor are they repelled by the boundaries of marine reserves like Aldabra. Vessels have little incentive to chase after them if they go missing or fail to attract fish. When the fishing aids wander into marine protected areas, ships cannot follow.
That means FADs and their entrails can remain at sea for months or years.
They are built to last, the floating structure fashioned from bamboo, plastic netting, cork, or PVC pipes. The underwater appendage consists of reams of nylon netting. This durability, a boon for fishers, is a disaster for the marine environment.
Abandoned FADs can end up anywhere: washed up on beaches, stuck on coral reefs, or festooned to mangroves. A study estimated that one in 10 FADs used by the French fleet in the Indian Ocean between 2007 and 2011 eventually beached.
Aldabra is formed by ancient coral reefs that now linger above sea level and enclose a lagoon three times the size of Manhattan. Its remoteness — it takes a chartered flight and a chartered boat from the main Seychellois island of Mahé to get there — makes cleaning operations difficult. FADs stuck on coral reefs offshore are even trickier to dislodge.
Those that remain at sea are also a menace. Their plastic components can break down into tinier particles and enter the marine food chain.
But the longer the devices persist intact, the higher the chances of ensnaring unintended victims. Endangered female green turtles (Chelonia mydas) undertake treacherous migrations every year, often spanning thousands of kilometers, to arrive at Seychelles’ shores to nest. For some, the journey ends trapped in the netting of an FAD.
Seychellois waters are also home to 60 species of shark, including silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis). Entangled in FADs and unable to move, juvenile silky sharks are likely to suffocate to death. Like many shark species, female silky sharks reach sexual maturity late, undergo long gestation periods, and give birth to few young ones, so the loss of juvenile sharks to FADs hits populations hard.
Drifting FADs are responsible for the deaths of somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million silky sharks every year in the Indian Ocean, a 2013 paper estimated.
FADs flourish, regulations lag
Regulation of FADs hasn’t kept up with their burgeoning use or the growing recognition of the problems they pose for marine life.
A series of agreements starting in 1987 between Seychelles and the EU (at that time still the European Economic Community, or EEC) govern EU-flagged ships that operate in Seychelles’ EEZ. A new six-year fishing pact came into force in 2020. It and other sustainable fisheries partnership agreements (SFPAs) the EU has signed with several developing nations in the Indian Ocean region have been criticized as exploitative, leading to overfishing and food insecurity, and stifling domestic fishing fleets’ development.
Even so, these deals have evolved from earlier “pay, fish and go” deals. After more than three decades, environmental considerations were included for the first time in the EU-Seychelles SFPA signed last year.
The new SFPA says EU vessels “shall use” natural or biodegradable material and non-entangling designs in FAD construction and retrieve FADs when they become useless. However, the use of so-called BioFADs is not actually binding and they appear to be stuck in the development phase.
In an emailed response, an EU spokesperson said their use is expected to be mandatory “by 2022,” adding “the E.U. conducted and is still conducting and funding several projects and studies to make biodegradable FADs a reality.”
Julio Morón Ayala, managing director of OPAGAC, an organization that represents the Spanish tuna purse seine fishing companies, described the 2022 target as “an impossible date.”
“We are trying to find the BioFAD design that could be fit for our fishing, and it is taking longer than expected, because after several years of experiences with scientists in an EU funded project in the Indian Ocean, it has been proved to be more difficult as expected,” Ayala wrote in an email to Mongabay.
The provisions regarding BioFADs in the SFPA do not extend to the 13 European-owned purse seine vessels that sail under the Seychelles flag.
‘What is biodegradable?’
Moreover, there is no consensus on what an eco-friendly FAD actually is. The EU launched a project in 2017 to test natural biodegradable materials for the construction of BioFADs. It involved key research institutes on the continent, including France’s IRD and the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO), as well as the Seychelles Fishing Authority, and the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation.
“We are still defining basic questions: what is biodegradable?” said Jóse Carlos Báez, a marine fisheries expert at IEO. “While the transition to biodegradable FADs has started, it may take a while until all FAD components can be made biodegradable.”
Not everyone is convinced that biodegradable FADs are the way to go. “We can put quotas, we can talk about biodegradable FADs, but a lot of conservationists who want sustainable fisheries do not see FADs becoming sustainable or part of sustainable fisheries,” said Raguain, the Seychellois marine conservationist.
Shah at Nature Seychelles called BioFADs “a red herring.” He says he wants FADs phased out altogether.
The IOTC, the regional fisheries management organization, has limited the number of FADs in use to 300 per vessel. While the IOTC’s intervention has made some difference, monitoring compliance is a challenge.
Fonteneau of IRD said part of the trouble is that there is no consensus among European vessel owners on what to do about FADs. Behind the scenes, the French and the Spanish are jostling about the rules, he said. The use of environmentally friendly FADs would add to the cost for all ship owners and operators.
An unequal relationship
For Raguain, the “unequal relationship” with the EU makes regulation difficult, especially for Seychelles, a small country with a very, very large marine territory and multiple fleets operating in its waters.
The onus for implementing the provisions of the SFPA, including those regarding FADs, will fall on Seychelles, the regional EU delegation said in a written response to Mongabay’s questions. The statement added that EU-flagged vessels “shall cooperate with them.”
“We can put the laws, but if the companies involved are not being monitored, they will abuse that; history shows that,” Raguain said.
Seychelles’ fisheries observer program involves personnel who accompany fishing vessels to monitor catches and ensure compliance with the rules. The program, which is partly funded by the industry, was launched only in 2013. An IOTC report that documented implementation of the program on the 13 purse seiners of the Seychellois fleet found that poorly trained observers and lack of human resources hampered their work.
A FAD stuck on a coral reef off Alphonse Atoll. Image Courtesy of Island Conservation Society.
The Seychelles Fishing Authority did not respond to multiple attempts to seek comment.
For small island nations worldwide, fishing license fees contribute significantly to government coffers, casting doubt on their ability to adequately regulate ships from larger, more powerful countries. For Seychelles, the fees and payments amount to about 3% of total government revenues.
According to the latest agreement, the EU will pay 5.3 million euros ($6.3 million) annually as fishing access fees, and EU ship owners will pay 80 to 85 euros ($97 to $102) per ton of tuna caught. They will also set aside an additional 175,000 euros ($208,000) a year to help Seychelles safeguard its bountiful marine riches.
Raguain pointed out that the terms of the EU’s deal don’t even cover the cost of getting rid of the garbage.
“For Aldabra, it costs us $10,000 per ton to remove marine plastic pollution. The 85 euros per ton of tuna does not reflect the actual externalities of these activities,” he said. “The consumers, most of whom are in Europe, need to realize that when they buy that can of tuna, it doesn’t show the full costs of this impact.”
This is the second story in a two-part series about the effect European tuna fishing has on the economy and marine environment of the Seychelles, an archipelagic nation in the Indian Ocean. Read Part I: Red flag: Predatory European ships help push Indian Ocean tuna to the brink.
Burt, A. J., Raguain, J., Sanchez, C., Brice, J., Fleischer-Dogley, F., Goldberg, R., … Turnbull, L. A. (2020). The costs of removing the unsanctioned import of marine plastic litter to small island states. Scientific Reports, 10(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-020-71444-6
Hanich, Q., Davis, R., Holmes, G., Amidjogbe, E., & Campbell, B. (2019). Drifting fish aggregating devices (FADs). The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, 34(4), 731-754. doi:10.1163/15718085-23441103
Maufroy, A., Chassot, E., Joo, R., & Kaplan, D. M. (2015). Large-scale examination of spatio-temporal patterns of drifting fish aggregating devices (dFADS) from tropical tuna fisheries of the Indian and Atlantic oceans. PLOS ONE, 10(5). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0128023
Filmalter, J. D., Capello, M., Deneubourg, J., Cowley, P. D., & Dagorn, L. (2013). Looking behind the curtain: Quantifying massive shark mortality in fish aggregating devices. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 11(6), 291-296. doi:10.1890/130045
This article by Malavika Vyawahare was first published on Mongabay.com on 9 April 2021. Lead Image: A turtle tangled in plastic netting and rope on Aldabra Atoll. Image courtesy of Richard Baxter.
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