It’s Wednesday, February 22, and Indian Ocean countries are taking a stand against overfishing.

Fisherman Kassim Abdalla Zingizi holds a yellowfin tuna after a catch in Vanga, Kenya

Small-scale fishers won a victory in recent weeks when countries in and around the Indian Ocean voted to temporarily ban certain kinds of industrial fishing gear that have decimated tuna populations.

The decision was made in Kenya during a special meeting of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, a body of the United Nations whose 30 members include the EU, India, Indonesia, Kenya, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. Under the three-month moratorium, the Indian Ocean will be off-limits to “fish-aggregating devices,” a category of industrial fishing gear that includes large walls of netting designed to catch an entire school of fish.

These devices catch tuna that are too young to reproduce, making it even more difficult for their collapsing populations to stabilize. They also unintentionally entangle non-target species that small-scale fishers rely on for their livelihoods.

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After the three-month moratorium, fish aggregating devices can be used but at a reduced quantity. The tuna commission’’s new rule will also require all fish-aggregating devices to be cataloged in a public register.

Frédéric Le Manach, scientific director for the French ocean advocacy nonprofit Bloom Association, said the temporary ban was a strike against the European Union’s “dominating relationship” with African and South Asian countries that border the Indian Ocean. While many developing nations supported measures to limit the use of fish-aggregating devices — which they largely don’t use — they butted heads with the European Union, whose member states profit heavily from them. (The EU delegation at the Tuna Commission talks also includes a ballooning cadre of industry lobbyists.) Vessels controlled by EU states or companies take in about a third of the region’s tuna catch, compared to the roughly 16 percent taken in by Indonesia and much less for other non-EU states.

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Coastal states “want to reclaim their sovereignty,” Le Manach told me. He said the recent negotiations have opened the door to the possibility of a total ban on fish-aggregating devices for the first time — an issue he expects to be at the center of the agenda at the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission’s next annual meeting in Mauritius in May.

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