The remote island atolls of St François and Farquhar are part of the Alphonse and Farquhar outer island groups in the Seychelles archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Like most of the Seychelles, these atolls are important nesting sites for sea birds and sea turtles, and are surrounded by some of the world’s healthiest and most intact coral reefs. There is a small settlement on Farquhar atoll, but St François has no human inhabitants.
In my mind, coral atolls like these have embodied a tropical paradise, untouched by human hand. How wrong could I be? When I went to the Seychelles last year, I discovered that even in these remote places the tuna industry is causing trouble.
Yep, it’s those FADs (Fish Aggregating Devices ) again, although I know a few less flattering acronyms to describe them! Those floating rafts of junk, dangling ropes and netting that entangle turtles and sharks, are ending up beached and entangled all over the Seychelles, despite the sophisticated tracking buoys they usually have attached.
The Island Conservation Society (ICS) has conservation centres on five islands in the Seychelles, and its scientists and rangers have been removing lost or abandoned FADs from their islands for years. In 2011 they started documenting the problem and in 2015, with funding from Greenpeace, were able to do systematic surveys in the region, build a database, and report the findings.
But, back to the atolls. The ICS surveyed St François and Farquhar atolls and found 48 FADs entangled or beached on each one. That’s 96 FADs on just two atolls. With the addition of other FADs found since 2011, the total number of beached or entangled FADs is 210. Over a third of the FADs they found were attached to the reef because the netting and ropes beneath the FADs had become caught on coral. Five of them had sea turtles trapped in their nets, sadly only one was found alive in time to be rescued. FADs washed up on beaches are also a danger to nesting sea turtles.
The ICS removes FADs whenever they can, but it can be difficult and dangerous, and the tides and weather must be just right. Then they have to dispose of the rubbish – most of the FADs they found were made from synthetic materials, with few biodegradable parts. Rubbish must be transported to the main island of Mahé for appropriate disposal, so it is a costly business cleaning up FADs.
Three quarters of the FADs found were traced back to Spanish owned vessels, registered in Spain or the Seychelles. This is no surprise, as Spain’s addiction to FADs is well known. The Spanish purse seine fleet uses more FADs than any other fleet, and now takes 83% of its Indian Ocean tuna catch around FADs.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: FADs drive me crazy. They’re a symptom of an out-of-control tuna fishery. I’d love to see FADs banned entirely, but at the very least we have to get their use under tight control. We need science-based limits on the number of FADs allowed in each ocean and limits for each vessel. FAD use must be reported alongside tuna catches. We need to know how many are released and collected, and where, and if any of them are lost. And every FAD must be labelled, so the companies who use and lose them can pay for the clean-up.
Scientist Sam Balderson from ICS was in Portugal last week presenting the findings of his research to a meeting of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). For their work to continue, ICS needs more funding, and Sam wants to know: will the tuna industry take responsibility and cough up for the FAD clean-up?
Considering that IOTC just set ‘limits’ on FADs that will actually allow a massive increase in their use, I’m not holding my breath.
Dr. Cat Dorey spends a lot of time at tuna science meetings and reading science reports to provide strategic advice for Greenpeace’s Tuna campaign. All images used in this blog are courtesy of the Island Conservation Society.
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