Charles Clover is executive director and co-founder of the Blue Marine Foundation. His new book, “Rewilding the Sea: How to Save our Oceans”, will be published by Witness Books on June 8.

Russia is accused of militarizing food supplies and stealing grain from Ukraine in the occupied territories of the Donbass region.

But Russia is not alone in stealing food from vulnerable countries. Evidence suggests that European Union fishing fleets are doing it too – and have been for some time.

According to a survey based on official data provided by Brussels to the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission – an intergovernmental body responsible for managing tuna stocks in the region – fishing vessels belonging to the EU, mainly Spanish, seem to have fished tuna in the waters of the poorest countries in the Indian Ocean without permission for years.

A study commissioned to OceanMind marine analysts by the chief investigator of the charity I run, the Blue Marine Foundation, found evidence to suggest that EU fleets had fished in the waters of Somalia and the India in 2017, 2018 and 2019. There were also traces of them fishing in waters off Mozambique, where EU vessels cannot currently fish, and in the Chagos Marine Protected Area, a British territory.

Sources close to the governments of Somalia and India say no fishing by these vessels was allowed, even under the notoriously shady private deals that tuna companies can sometimes make with developing countries. But in response to the Blue Marine study, the fishing association Europêche categorically denied that EU vessels had fished in developing country waters without prior agreement.

The probe also examined Automatic Identification System (AIS) data from EU vessels, only to find that some EU fishing vessels had “gone dark” for most of the two-year study.

AIS is a requirement of EU regulations – and international maritime law – as a safety tool to prevent collisions. Even in parts of the Western Indian Ocean delineated as “high risk” due to the threat of piracy, the best practice recommendation by maritime authorities is that AIS remain on.

The Blue Marine Foundation first reported this discovery to the European Commission in 2019, but to no avail.

Stealing fish from the waters of poorer countries would be a disgrace at best. But this is certainly not the best of times in the Indian Ocean, where yellowfin tuna have been overfished since 2015. And if the stock on which countless coastal communities depend for their food security recovers, yellowfin tuna catches need to be cut almost a third – or about 130,000 metric tons – of what they were in 2020.

The method of fishing chosen by vessels belonging to the EU – mainly Spanish and French flagged, as well as coastal states such as Mauritius and the Seychelles – is to deploy a large surrounding net, called a seine, around schools of fish. It is suspended vertically in the water, with its bottom held down by weights and its top edge supported by floats. These seines are often set around floating rafts with long “tails”, called FADs, which attract the fish.

This is valued that 97% of yellowfin caught in this way in the Indian Ocean are juveniles.

EU delegates recently took part in talks that were to come up with a recovery plan for this yellowfin overfishing problem. However, delegates from Indian Ocean countries and foreign fleets failed to agree on a 30% reduction, which would actually make tuna recovery possible. Unlike the proposal put forward by the Maldives — which tried admirably during the talks to reduce catches — the EU proposal did not put forward any further reductions in catches this year.

The EU also opposed the adoption of a temporary closure of the ocean to drifting FADs – despite substantial support for coastal country restrictions – which would have significantly reduced the attrition rate of juvenile tunas.

We’ve been here before: in the early 2000s, the Commission’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries was far too influenced by officials who were largely pro-fishing nations and failed to prevent overfishing of the Atlantic bluefin tuna.

A massive public campaign was then mounted to save bluefin tuna from extinction, and under the leadership of the fearsome Maria Damanaki, EU fisheries chief from 2010 to 2014, there was a big upheaval. Thanks to these efforts, Atlantic bluefin tuna are now appearing everywhere, including in the waters of the English Channel, off Ireland, Scotland and even Norway, where they have no been seen for decades.

The current environment, oceans and fisheries commissioner, Virginijus Sinkevičius, must follow Damanaki’s example.

The heavily subsidized EU fleet has virtually no ethical justification for fishing in the Indian Ocean, other than the precedents set in colonial times. And he takes the largest percentage of catches, at a time when stocks are in serious trouble. But if the catches of EU-owned fleets were left in the water, the Indian Ocean would actually be on the road to recovery.

They should come out.