Illegal subsidies and maladministration by European institutions in the ‘electric fishing’ case: BLOOM turns to the European Ombudsman

Paris, 6 November 2018

While European negotiations are moving towards an illegitimate reauthorization of electric fishing to the detriment of small-scale and coastal fishers, BLOOM hardens its tone and denounces the complicity of Member States and the European Commission with a handful of powerful industrial lobbies.

Today BLOOM turns to the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, who is in charge of arbitrating cases of maladministration by European institutions, transparency and ethics, so that she can assess the serious administrative failure of the European Commission in the ‘electric fishing’ case. Additionally, BLOOM reveals today that contrary to public claims, the Dutch electric fishing industry received substantial amounts in public subsidies, including financial aid for a prohibited fishing gear as well as for illegal fishing licenses. Long concealed by Dutch authorities, the file enabling BLOOM to quantify how much public money was granted to industrial electric trawlers, against the general interest and in opposition with the regulatory framework, was eventually made public after a long battle to obtain that the Dutch government fulfilled its European transparency requirements.

Maladministration by the European Commission

It has been over a year since BLOOM filed a complaint against the Netherlands, exposing the illegality of most electric fishing licenses granted to Dutch vessels to practice this destructive fishing method banned in Europe until 2006. The European Commission had one year to respond to our request registered on 2 October 2017. The illegal status of most Dutch licences and the numerous dysfunctions of European institutions have since been confirmed by a researcher and former jurist at the European Commission. Regardless, the Commission has failed to respond to our complaint and, in doing so, is seriously hampering European negotiations on the future of electric fishing.

The Commission is responsible for a gigantic European mess,” said Mathieu Colléter, Science & Policy officer at BLOOM. “It deliberately authorized a fishing method that was banned in Europe against scientific advice. This scandalous decision will now leading to the bankruptcy of small-scale coastal fishers around the southern North Sea.

Claire Nouvian, Founder of BLOOM, added: “The failure to respond to our complaint is symptomatic of the arbitrary power of the European Commission. Both judge and defendant, it can absolve itself from accountability. The European negotiations are moving towards the reauthorization of electric fishing, which will lead to the disappearance of small-scale fishers. The situation is too serious for us to remain passive. Institutions must stop supporting the interests of industrial lobbies. This calamitous conduct of public affairs drives people to despair and into the arms of anti-Europe populists. We are counting on the rapid intervention of the European Ombudsman to bring order to this disastrous electric fishing case.

By refusing to handle BLOOM’s complaint, the Commission is concealing crucial information from European citizens and decision-makers in the context of the current European negotiations.

>Click here to find out more about BLOOM’s campaign and the important steps taken, including our complaints and successive revelations about the electric fishing scandal:

The shocking financial implications of the electric fishing case

European Regulations oblige Member States to publish in a transparent and rigorous manner all subsidies data allocated to the fishing sector. Despite the clarity of the legal framework, the Netherlands has for a long time rejected our requests for transparency and has failed to publish these data, especially for the crucial 2007-2014[1] period during which conventional beam trawlers were equipped with electrodes. BLOOM obtained the list of public subsidies allocated by the Dutch government to its fishing industry after a tedious battle. After a specific complaint about the non compliance of Dutch authorities with legal transparency requirements was filed to the European Commission in April 2018,[2] BLOOM turned to the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF)[3] and sent a simultaneous letter to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.[4] This forced the Dutch Government to comply with the law and upload on its website, in June, the list of public subsidies allocated to the fisheries sector in the Netherlands.

BLOOM meticulously analyzed the data, which reveal the systemic dysfunctions of institutions and Member States, and the concrete negative impacts of their incestuous relationship with industrial lobbies. Contrary to the claims of Dutch industrial fishing lobbies such as VisNed and Nederlandse Vissersbond, electric fishing has not been “barely subsidized”:[5] the development of electric fishing has been heavily subsidized by European taxpayers. Indeed, a conservative estimate shows that at least 21.5 million euros of public subsidies have been allocated to support, legitimize and develop electric fishing in the Netherlands since 2007 through two European financial instruments: € 14.3 million from the European Fisheries Fund (between 2008 and 2016) and € 6.5 million from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF)[6] since 2017. These subsidies are scandalous and even illegal in several ways:

  • Grants for ‘research’ (which never took place, see the “To go further” section) have always transited without any transparency through private interests representatives such as VisNed and Nederlandse Vissersbond. When asked about the use of these funds, Dutch researchers refused to provide any information;
  • More than half a million euros were allocated to the certification process of the Dutch trawl fleets by the private and controversial label MSC. The electric segment ­— which now accounts for almost 100% of these fleets’ catch — missed the MSC certification in 2016 by 3% on one of the criteria out of three. These amounts are also much higher than the costs of such a certification (between 12 000 and 100 000 euros per fishery);
  • All these subsidies have been granted in breach of European regulations, which indicate that public subsidies cannot be used to increase the fishing efficiency, what electric fishing clearly does. On the other hand, it should be kept in mind that the vast majority of electric trawlers are illegal. Any subsidies granted to them are thus also illegal.

Moreover, BLOOM reveals today that public subsidies, amounting to 2.7 million euros, have been used to develop a fishing method that is explicitly prohibited by European regulations: electric otter trawls (see the “To go further” section below). “Current regulations do not provide any derogation for this type of gear and its subsidization is therefore illegal” reacted Frédéric Le Manach, BLOOM’s Scientific Director. “The electric fishing lobby had previously openly acknowledged being ahead of the regulatory framework and developing new electric fisheries!

Mathieu Colléter warns decision-makers: “Without a democratic leap forward at upcoming Trilogue negotiations, the door is open for a massive conversion of European industrial fleets to electricity in defiance of the precautionary principle, marine resources and ecosystems, and small-scale fishers.” BLOOM has informed the European Anti-Fraud Office about this new element to update and reactivate its June 2018 request, which has also been at a stalemate.

BLOOM calls for a fresh democratic impetus of European institutions

BLOOM urges the Parliament, the Council and the European Commission to keep in mind that their mission is to protect all European citizens. European taxpayers refuse that public wealth is used to destroy the best fishing practices, jobs and marine ecosystems. It is urgent that the three European institutions reinstate a total ban on electric fishing, as was the case until 2006. In January 2018, the European Parliament voted with a strong majority in favor of a full prohibition. It would be difficult to understand today, faced with the accumulation of evidence including new cases brought forward by the Blue Marine Foundation of English marine protected areas being electrocuted by pulse trawls, that the destruction of marine ecosystems and coastal economies is authorized through electric fishing. Artisanal fishers from the Southern North Sea, which are severely impacted by electric trawlers, demonstrated in Belgium and France on Saturday 3 November to share their dismay and anger at political institutions’ cynicism and destructive policies.

Political maneuvers to obtain the authorization of electric fishing are growing and are affecting the European Parliament’s determination. Representatives of several European parties are working behind the scenes to allow the use and the development of this destructive fishing method. These shameful arrangements, far from European democratic ideals, are likely to succeed. “While the European Union is facing a major crisis, political institutions must act in a transparent and democratic manner on this topic. It would be unbelievable that our marine ecosystems and artisanal fishers are sacrificed in the pursuit of profit by a few Dutch industrial fishers. Electric fishing is anything but innovative, it is a danger for European democracy” concludes Mathieu Colléter.

***

TO GO FURTHER

Illegal licenses

The Netherlands has flouted European regulations, with the approval of the Commission and the Council, by equipping 28% of their beam trawl fleet (see Glossary below), i.e., 84 vessels, while each Member State can only equip up to 5% of its beam trawl fleet. That currently corresponds to 14 vessels for the Netherlands.

Otter trawls (see Glossary below) are excluded from this derogation regime, as are other types of trawl (e.g., “pelagic”) and dredges.

Following our complaint on 2 October 2017, it took more than six months for the European Commission to transfer the file to the EUPilot system. Note that nothing explained such a delay. Once the file has been transferred, it usually takes ten weeks for the Member State to reply to the Commission and ten weeks for the Commission to evaluate the proposed response. This period of twenty weeks should have resulted in a response from the European Commission in early September 2018.

Hidden subsidies

Despite transparency requirements, the Netherlands had not made available the file listing the beneficiaries of the European Fisheries Fund (EFF, 2007-2013). It was the only country in the top 18 Member States in terms of funds allocation (representing 97% of the funds) not to have disclosed this financial information. In mid-June 2018 and following our media and political pressure, it has been finally published by the Dutch government.

Since the beginning of our campaign, we have argued that € 5.7 million from the EMFF have been allocated to the development of electric fishing in the Netherlands (for equipment or research) between August 2015 and October 2017. Our new analysis shows that this figure now stands at € 6.5 million, to which are added the subsidies obtained through the EFF.

Illegal subsidies

In the EFF file, it is clearly established that € 2 million have been allocated to the ‘Stichting Masterplan Duurzame Visserij’ project. On the website of this project, electric fishing is presented as one of the “pillars of innovation” through the pilot vessel, MDV-1 IMMANUEL. The “main innovations” of IMMANUEL MDV-1 include “60 to 80% fuel savings” and a “carbon footprint reduction“, which is the main alibi of the electric fishing lobby. IMMANUEL MDV-1 being an otter trawler, its use of electricity and its subsidization are illegal. In the EMFF file, it is also established that € 0.7 million has also been allocated to the ‘Masterplan Duurzame Visserij’ project, bringing the number of public subsidies allocated to this illegal project to € 2.7 million.

>View the ‘Masterplan Duurzame Visserij’ project website: http://masterplanduurzamevisserij.nl/

A dubious research activity

In March 2018, a Dutch investigative journalist, Thomas Spekschoor, obtained the yearly number of electric beam trawlers that took part in research activities in the Netherlands. He revealed a scientific sham in an article published in the journal NOS (https://nos.nl/artikel/2224234-nederland-riep-het-verbod-op-pulsvissen-over-zichzelf-af.html). While 84 licenses were granted in the Netherlands, a maximum of 32 vessels were involved in research experiments. “It was a trick to get commercial fishing licenses – in practice, many vessels fished for years without any scientists ever coming on board” wrote the journalist. Following this article, the Dutch Minister of Fisheries Carola Schouten acknowledged that there was no research plan and tried to justify this by blaming the Commission, which had supposedly decided on its own to grant 42 additional licenses (https://nos.nl/artikel/2224621-schouten-brussel-gaf-zelf-toestemming-voor-vergunningen-pulsvisserij.html)! Today, a vast scientific offensive is organized to legitimize this destructive practice and the observed abuses. We repeatedly criticized some studies for their methodologies as well as the many fundamental research questions that are still not addressed.

>Read our news about “the scientific offensive” of the Dutch: bloomassociation.org/offensive-scientifique-pour-sauver-la-peche-electrique

>Also read our updated advocacy document: bloomassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/plaidoyer-peche-electrique-v3.pdf.

Marine reserves are also electrocuted

The English NGO Blue Marine Foundation filed a complaint to the European Commission on 1 October 2018 on the grounds that the Member States and the European Commission allow vessels to fish using electricity in the Natura 2000 area of the Dogger Bank, in violation of several articles of the Habitats Directive. This situation goes beyond reason and European law.

The Blue Marine Foundation has since identified that electric fishing is also practiced in other Natura 2000 areas in the North Sea. It will, therefore, complete its complaint with the new cases found in British waters, and calls on other European NGOs to mobilize to stop this destructive activity in areas of major ecological interest.

Our coalition is growing

Our coalition is strengthened by the support of Slow Food, Shark Project and Italian artisanal fishermen from the Cooperativa pescatori di Su Pallosu. BLOOM has also updated its advocacy document, available at www.bloomassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/plaidoyer-peche-electrique-v3.pdf. The public, politicians and the media thus have new elements demonstrating the need to ban electric fishing in Europe.

Glossary

Beam trawlers: A trawl is trailed on each side of the vessel. The horizontal opening of the net is ensured by a metal bar.

Otter trawlers: Only one trawl is trailed behind the vessel. The horizontal opening of the net is ensured by a metal panel on each side of the net.

Read this press release :

> in Spanish: https://www.bloomassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/CP-BLOOM-Revelaciones-Conferencia-Parlamento-6-de-noviembre-de-2018.pdf

> in Italian: https://www.bloomassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Comunicato_pesca_elettrica_6-NOVEMBRE-10.pdf

Watch the different speeches:

> Yannick Jadot (MEP)

> Younous Omarjee (MEP)

> John Flack (MEP)

> Claire Nouvian

> Michel Morin

> Frédéric le Manach

> Sebastian Villacante

> Tom Appleby

Notes and references

[1] The European Fisheries Fund (EEF). It officially covered the 2007-2013 time period, but payments occurred until 2016.

[2] Read our complaint at: http://www.bloomassociation.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/EFF-complaint-English-version.pdf

[3] Read our request to OLAF at: http://www.bloomassociation.org/en/fishers-and-environmental-organisations-call-on-the-european-anti-fraud-office-to-open-a-formal-investigation-about-electric-fishing/

[4] Read our letter to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutter at: http://www.bloomassociation.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/bloom-letter-dutch-prime-minister.pdf

[5] On their anti-BLOOM propaganda website, these two lobbying structures claim that no subsidies have been granted to the electric fishing sector, besides 680 000 EUR granted to the first four vessels equipped with electrodes. They also claim that all other subsidies had been granted to carry out research: https://spark.adobe.com/page/9JgWl4RMfvB2W/.

[6] The remaining 680 000 EUR correspond to the aforementioned State aids granted to the first four equipped vessels.

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