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What’s the Catch? How FADs are Decimating Marine Ecosystems

by Campaign for Eco-Safe Tuna
January 12, 2016

What’s the Catch? How FADs are Decimating Marine Ecosystems

A recent report from the PEW Charitable Trusts finds that the exploitation of drifting fish aggregating devices (FADs) to catch tuna is on the rise, with FAD development more than doubled since 2006 in the Pacific Ocean alone. From 2011 to 2013, the estimated number FADs deployed worldwide grew from as many as 105,000 to as many as 121,000 – a 14 percent increase in only two years.

As the number of drifting FADs continues to rise at an alarming rate, the PEW report finds that the few existing management measures for FADs “are generally ineffective and fail to limit the overall number or use of these devices.” The report further finds that “the lack of regulation threatens ocean ecosystems, undermines sustainable fisheries efforts, and jeopardizes the livelihoods and well-being of fishermen.” Our main takeaway is this: unregulated drifting FADs are not a sustainable method for catching tuna.

Although designed to catch tuna, FADs pose a great danger to non-target species, as many marine species naturally congregate near them. FADs contribute to marine litter and jeopardize the survival of the vulnerable species that they attract – such as sharks, manta rays, salifish, billfish and turtles – which often become the tragic bycatches of a tuna harvest. For example, PEW estimates that 480,000 to 960,000 highly endangered silky sharks are caught in drifting FADs and killed each year in the Indian Ocean alone.  

Additionally, while much of the world’s tuna that receives a “dolphin-safe” label is harvested around FADs, there is no proof that these FADs do not catch or harm dolphins beyond the word of the ship’s operator. Considering the lack of regulation surrounding FADs and their tendency to trap and kill any marine life in their path, it is highly likely that a growing number of dolphins are in fact injured and killed by FADs each year – either unknown or unreported by ship operators.

FADs often lead to the capture of juvenile tuna as well, which have not yet reproduced or grown to their full size. This has already led to an overfishing crisis of bigeye tuna in the Pacific, where more than 85 percent of bigeye tuna caught in 2013 were immature fish harvested from FADs. The population of bigeye tune in the Pacific continues to decline as well, and recently dropped to just 16 percent of historic levels.  

Finally, FADs that are left to drift freely pose an ever greater threat by entangling and killing a variety of marine life before they break up and sink in the ocean or wash up on beaches and coral reefs as plastic and synthetic debris.

Considering the decimation of the marine ecosystem that they cause, is it any wonder that activists have nicknamed FADs “floating death traps”? We don’t think so – and we agree with PEW’s conclusion that ensuring sustainable and eco-safe practices for tuna fishing “is the responsibility of all involved in tuna fishing and will safeguard the health and sustainability of these fisheries and the greater marine ecosystem for generations to come.”