The struggle to conserve species that are high value commodities – the case of tuna

2nd December 2020

An opinion piece by Mialy Andriamahefazafy, an alumna of the MPhil in Conservation Leadership, University of Cambridge.

Tuna is everywhere! Even if it is not your choice of fish, tuna is present in many by-products such pet food or baby food. It is also used for fish oil in food supplements or fishmeal in aquaculture farms or in fertilisers. Tuna is also a high value commodity. A recent study by PEW evaluated that the value of the tuna industry is at 33 US billion. Its ubiquitous character in our lives should drive its conservation needs. To this is also added the current drive for fisheries sustainability globally. However, I will present here two drivers that make conserving tuna a struggle based on research on tuna fisheries in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO). In the WIO, tuna is fished by local fishers as well as by foreign fishing companies and countries like China, France, Japan, Spain or South Korea [in accordance with Art. 62 of the UNCLOS].

The first challenge is the regional character of tuna fisheries management. As a migratory species, the management of the fisheries is mainly decided regionally at the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). There, various interests are at play including those of strong fishing companies. There are also different capacities of negotiation with geopolitical ties between coastal countries and foreign fishing countries through development aid. Adopting conservation measures are stalled by economic interests, geopolitics and the bureaucracy of the IOTC. As an illustration, since 2015, yellowfin tuna species have been assessed as overfished in the Indian Ocean and a rebuilding plan has been adopted in 2016. However, the plan suggested a 15% reduction of catch while the scientific recommendation was a 20% reduction. Also, the compliance of fishing fleets to the plan has been limited and even led to the increase of overall catch of yellowfin in the past couple of years.

IOTC Meeting in 2018

The second struggle is the national balance between benefits from access to the fish and the conservation needs of the of the resources. Access in the WIO by different actors generates ‘situated winners and losers’. At the moment, while coastal governments and local fishers are winners and losers for fish or revenue at different time [when the fish is present or not] and space [in the national waters or the high seas], foreign industrial actors are mainly winners as they have the capital and technology to follow the fish in different jurisdictions and towards the high seas. The fact that benefits are situated renders conservation not always a priority as countries and fishing actors aspire to sustain the coming in of benefits in the short and then the longer term.

Landing of tuna in Antsiranana port, North Madagascar

To conserve tuna resources and continue to benefit from tuna fisheries, a drastic change of paradigm towards a blue degrowth is needed, putting the tuna resources and positive socio-ecological changes as a priority. This entails taking challenging decisions such as adopting strict management measures that in the short time might reduce the flows of revenues from tuna fisheries. It also requires redirecting the aspirations for tuna fisheries towards local needs in terms of food security and local livelihoods. While all actors will be affected by the reduction and collapse of tuna resources, the impacts will be highly differentiated with coastal communities exposed to a loss of livelihoods and source of protein.


Andriamahefazafy, M (2020). The politics of sustaining tuna, fisheries and livelihoods in the Western Indian Ocean. A marine political ecology perspective. PhD Dissertation. University of Lausanne.

Andriamahefazafy, M., Bailey, M., Sinan, H., & Kull, C. A. (2020). The paradox of sustainable tuna fisheries in the Western Indian Ocean: between visions of blue economy and realities of accumulation. Sustainability Science 15(1):75-89.

Andriamahefazafy, M., & Kull, C. A. (2019). Materializing the blue economy: tuna fisheries and the theory of access in the Western Indian Ocean. Journal of Political Ecology 26(1):403-424.

Andriamahefazafy, M., Kull, C. A., & Campling, L. (2019). Connected by sea, disconnected by tuna? Challenges to regionalism in the Southwest Indian Ocean. Journal of the Indian Ocean Region:1-20.

Author bio: 

Mialy is a geographer specialised in fisheries management and ocean governance. She is an alumna of the MPhil Conservation Leadership from Cambridge University. She recently completed her PhD at the University of Lausanne, looking at tuna fisheries management in the Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles, mobilising political ecology as her analytical framework. Mialy is also a consultant on fisheries management and marine policy. She is a member of the board of trustees of the International Pole and Line Foundation, and is one of the experts from Madagascar on the policy-support tool task force of the IPBES. From 2021, she will analyse the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 focusing on sustainable fisheries and ocean conservation, in East Africa.