BLOOM AND GILLNETTERS FILE A COMPLAINT FOR ILLEGAL ELECTRIC FISHING IN FRENCH WATERS

‘Electric fishing’ continues to be a hot topic. On 9 May 2019, BLOOM and 45 professional fishers from Northern France filed a complaint with the Regional Court of Dunkirk. The plaintiffs are represented by Ms. Maud Touitou and Mr. Sébastien Mabile of  law firm ‘Seattle Avocats’. Several cases of electric fishing have been documented in French territorial waters, i.e. a 22km-wide coastal strip (12 nautical miles). If these vessels operated under an illegal license, i.e. exceeding the legal threshold of 5% of the Dutch beam trawl fleet — as is the case for 70 of the 84 derogations — this would be an alleged infringement.[1]

The complete lack of transparency in this file prevents BLOOM from clearly identifying which electric trawlers exceed the 5% legal threshold (see below; ‘To go further’). “BLOOM reconstructed the list of electric trawlers using information published in the Dutch press and various reports, but we do not know, for each of the derogation issued, the formal date of equipment and the associated legal status” explains Frédéric Le Manach, BLOOM’s Scientific Director. Indeed, BLOOM’s successive requests to ICES, IMARES, the Dutch Government[2] and the European Commission[3] to obtain a detailed list of equipped vessels were unsuccessful, as well as the written question addressed to the Commission by Belgian MEPs Frédérique Ries and Louis Michel. “This complaint will enable us to achieve transparency and to keep the pressure on the Dutch. We won’t give up because, as we have shown, the Dutch electric fishing industry has systematically trampled the law” says Sabine Rosset, BLOOM’s Director.

With this complaint, we hope to obtain compensation for the damage caused as well as recognition of the illegal nature of the majority of the Dutch electric fishing derogations, if necessary through a prejudicial reference before the European Court of Justice. As citizens or NGOs, we cannot directly appeal to this Court since the system is totally locked. A Member State such as France could do this, but there is no political will” explains Mathieu Colléter, BLOOM’s Policy Officer. “We want the illegality of the destructive expansion of electric fishing in the past years to be recognized and justice to be done. Electric trawlers — supported by their government — have plundered a common resource and flouted European laws. It caused the bankruptcy of many small-scale fishers and continues to do so. It will take years for fish populations to recover because juveniles and the entire ecosystem have probably been damaged” points out Stéphane Pinto, who speaks on behalf of the French gillnetters and as the vice-chair of the regional fisheries committee.

ELECTRIC FISHING WILL SOON BE BANNED IN FRENCH TERRITORIAL WATERS

This complaint was filed on the same day as the French National Assembly’s first vote on a full and immediate ban on electric fishing in French territorial waters. This bill was co-signed by 126 MPs across all political parties. “This law is keenly awaited by French small-scale fishers because it will immediately ban electric fishing from the French coastal strip, pending the full and definitive ban on this destructive method on 1 July 2021” explains Laetitia Bisiaux, researcher at BLOOM. “The number of electric trawlers will also drastically decrease throughout the North Sea in the coming months. About 70 trawlers should stop using electricity as soon as the new ‘Technical Measures Regulation’ enters into force.

THE NETHERLANDS HAVE NO INTENTION OF COMPLYING WITH THE NEW REGULATION

BLOOM must carry on fighting to ensure that European laws are respected. While the ban on electric fishing was approved by a large majority of the European Parliament on 16 April 2019, the Dutch Minister of Fisheries, Carola Schouten, publicly announced that she would not comply with the new European regulation. The Dutch government unilaterally decided to extend 20 electric fishing derogations until 31 December 2019, using once again the fallacious argument of ‘scientific research’. These derogations should however stop as soon as the new regulation enters into force. The Dutch Minister also grossly overestimated the number of Dutch beam trawlers so as to artificially increase the number of authorized derogations until the full ban on 1 July 2021. She pretends that there should be 22 such derogations, whereas the Netherlands should benefit from a maximum of 14.[4] A letter was sent to the European Commission on 6 May 2019 to highlight this issue and urge it to react swiftly. This new and worrying development shows that the fight needs to be going on to enforce European regulations and obtain compensation for small-scale fishers.

Notes and references

[1] This offense is provided for and punished by Article L. 945-4, 6° and 8° of the Rural and Maritime Fisheries Code. Available at: https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichCodeArticle.do?cidTexte=LEGITEXT000006071367&idArticle=LEGIARTI000033035242&dateTexte=&categorieLien=id

[2] http://www.bloomassociation.org/en/requests-electric-fishing/

[3] https://www.bloomassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Ares_2019_2615995.pdf

[4] Indeed, Carola Schouten took as reference 1 January 2006, the date on which the Dutch fleet consisted of 356 beam trawlers on a primary basis and 23 on a secondary basis. 5% of the beam trawler fleet corresponds to 19 vessels, taking as a reference on 1 January 2006. By taking effect on 1 January 2019, the number of derogations shall amount to a maximum of 14 vessels.

TO GO FURTHER

As a reminder, the European Commission and the Council of the European Union created in 2006 a derogation system enabling each Member State to carry out electric fishing – prohibited since 1998 in the European Union – up to a maximum of 5% of their beam trawl fleet. Far from being sufficient to quench the thirst of industrialists, the Netherlands then granted many illegal derogations under the guise of scientific research. This was revealed by BLOOM on 2 October 2017 when it lodged a complaint with the European Commission. [5] On 1 February 2019, the European Commission’s Directorate General for fisheries finally acknowledged that BLOOM was right by proposing the opening of a formal infringement procedure to the College of Commissioners of the European Union, and that the Netherlands had therefore violated the law. But the case is stalled and the College of Commissioners does not seem in a hurry to deal with this matter.

Three sets of derogations were granted over the 2006-2018 period:

  • 22 derogations through Regulation (EC) 41/2007. These derogations have been renewed from year to year until it was included in 2013 as an amendment to Regulation (EC) 850/98. NB: According to the European fleet register, 5% of the Dutch beam trawl fleet corresponded to 19 vessels in 2007 and not 22.
  • 20 derogations through Article 43 of Council Regulation (EC) No 850/98 (article dedicated exclusively to scientific research)
  • 42 derogations under Article 14 of Regulation (EU) 1380/2013 (5-year pilot project)

The ban on electric fishing will come into effect on 1 July 2021. During the transition period, i.e. between the entry into force of the new Regulation (in the coming weeks) and this deadline of July 2021, only 5% of the beam trawl fleet (corresponding to a maximum of 14 vessels in 2019 according to the update of the European fleet register) will be authorized to continue using this technique. Currently, 84 Dutch electric trawlers are still licensed to fish in the North Sea.

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