Skip to main content

Dr Adrian Gutteridge

Tuna specialist and fisheries assessment manager.

Global campaigns for sustainable tuna fishing have called for a ban on the use of Fish Aggregating Devices – also known as FADs. However, ‘FAD’ does not always mean ‘bad’. The impacts of this fishing practice need to be considered in the context of that particular fishery and ecosystem.

What exactly are FADs?

Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) are man-made, usually floating wooden structures with hanging nets to attract fish. These rafts can either be free floating (known as drifting FADs or dFADs) or anchored to the seabed (known as anchored FADs or aFADs).
Some tuna fisheries also target natural structures or objects, including free-floating logs (tree trunks) and large marine animals, such as whale sharks, around which fish congregate. This is referred to as ‘natural-associated’ or ‘object-associated’ fishing.
By deploying their nets and casting their lines close to these floating objects, tuna fishers can increase their catches of tuna.

What are the problems with using FADs?

A wide variety of marine life including tuna, turtles and sharks congregate around FADs. These species can become entangled in the floating nets attached to FADs. They can also be caught as bycatch in the same nets or lines used to catch tuna.

Bycatch of non-target species can be high when fishing around FADs, particularly in comparison to other methods of tuna fishing such as free school fishing, where nets are set in the open water. High amounts of bycatch can have detrimental impacts on the sustainability of these species. It can also increase the capture of juvenile tuna, putting the sustainability of particular tuna stocks at risk.However, species interact differently with different types of FADs, and different fishing techniques can make dramatic differences in the level of bycatch.

In addition to bycatch concerns, the potential effects of FADs on the migratory patterns of tuna is also an area of ongoing research, as are the impacts of lost or derelict FADs on habitats such as corals.

What can be done to reduce the impacts?

The capture of bycatch and non-target species around FADs is usually associated with purse seine fishing operations. Here fish are encircled with a large net which is then drawn closed at the vessel (like a purse), catching the fish inside the net. Other more selective fishing methods such as purse seine fishing on free schools of tuna (those not associated with Fish Aggregating Devices or other floating objects), pole and line fishing or trolling result in less bycatch. However, these other methods may have their own impacts which need to be considered carefully.

The advent of “eco-FADs” or non-entangling FADs, which don’t use hanging mesh, are also thought to limit the number of entanglements. The use of biodegradable FADs is also an area of ongoing research which could also help to minimise long-term negative impacts. 

The impacts of FADs also need to be considered within the particular marine ecosystem, accounting for its unique mix of species and how they congregate around different types of FAD. For example, bycatch around aFADs which are located closer to land, can be lower than bycatch associated with dFADs, which float freely in open water.

Developing more robust FAD management is an area of focus for many fisheries organisations, NGOs and the Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) that manage tuna stocks. For RFMOs, management measures include limiting the number of FADs that are deployed, promoting the use of biodegradable materials and developing management plans to address the impacts of FAD fishing and the numbers of FADs that are currently deployed.

What is the MSC’s approach?

Certification to the MSC Fisheries Standard is based on comprehensive assessment of the impacts of a particular fishery and the environment within which it operates. Therefore, because of the variations in the impacts that different FADs and fishing techniques can have in different marine environments, the MSC Fisheries Standard does not include specific requirements for FAD use, nor does it prohibit the use of FADs. 

To achieve MSC certification all fisheries, regardless of their fishing techniques, must be assessed as having rates of bycatch which do not pose a long-term threat to any species within the ecosystem where they operate.

This means that in the past, fisheries using FADs with high or unknown levels of bycatch have struggled to achieve MSC certification. 

However, improvements and better management do make this possible. The recently certified Echebastar Indian Ocean purse seine skipjack tuna fishery was the first to achieve MSC certification for tuna fishing operations including sets on dFADs. 

Working with the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission and Seychelles authorities, this fishery has actively sought to reduce bycatch by reducing numbers of FADs, using only non-entangling FADs and ensuring the rapid release of non-target species. These efforts demonstrate leadership within the tuna fishing industry. Now certified this fishery will also be required, as a condition of its certification, to invest in research and practices to further reduce the potential impacts of FADs and better understand their impacts.

We believe that by incentivising sustainable tuna fishing, the MSC program can be part of an evolution to enabling more sustainable fishing practices. In the case of tuna fishing this incentive could encourage more fishers to adopt more sustainable fishing methods. It might also lead to new ways of reducing impacts of fishing on FADs – and stricter controls to ensure that these are followed.

We see considerable research being undertaken by the fishing industry to reduce the environmental impacts of FADs. Through these innovations and improvements, we believe that fishers can continue to catch tuna in a way which is both profitable and sustainable.

Further reading

Sustainable tuna: Challenges and solutions >

International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) On FADs >