06 March 2023
BLOOM sues the French State, supportive of environmental destruction in the Indian Ocean
06 March 2023
While the world is praising the laborious completion of the UN treaty on the High Seas, a concrete and urgent EU-Africa example shows that all the treaties in the world will not put an end to the violence of the unsustainable and inequitable exploitation of the resources of the South by industrialized countries: today, BLOOM has no choice but to sue the French state in two separate proceedings, one before the French Council of State, the other before the Administrative Court, for its destructive and irresponsible attitude in the Indian Ocean. Conflict of interest, illegal derogations, lack of fleets’ control, the withholding of environmental data: France holds an impressive record of complicity in tropical tuna fisheries, which are operated by 23 French industrial vessels(1) in African waters and especially in the Indian Ocean.
After having reported in mid-November to the public prosecutor (who has since opened an inquiry) a case of potentially illegal defection from the French administration to the tuna fishing lobby(2), BLOOM continues its legal actions and investigations to limit the omnipotence and impact of opaque distant fishing activities, which are excessively destructive for marine life and the ocean’s health. In addition to bringing the French administration’s abnormal behavior to court, BLOOM today reveals the results of a groundbreaking study, showing that the French State conducts no control over its industrial distant-water vessels.
In an attempt to mask its complacency towards the constant fraud of its fishing fleets in Africa, France is currently lobbying hard in Brussels to change European standards. If France succeeds to undermine the European ‘Control Regulation’ on fishing fleets, it will hit the jackpot: on the one hand, it will escape an infringement procedure opened against France by the European Commission, and on the other, it will have made the fraud of French tuna fleets the new norm in Europe.
In distant water tuna fisheries, as unfortunately in too many marine issues, France is exerting a toxic influence of the highest order. The next trilogue on the reform of the Control Regulation to be held under the Swedish Presidency, on 8 March, could be the last. There is an urgent need to curb France’s enormous and harmful power in Africa and within European institutions.
Two court summonses and a European infringement procedure
Since 2015, France has granted its tuna fishing fleets in the Indian Ocean the ‘right’ to fish illegally through a ‘circular’, which blatantly infringes the European law(3). Today, BLOOM is requesting the French Council of State to repeal this circular, which is also one of the reasons why the European Commission opened an infringement procedure in June 2021 against France(4), as this text contradicts the law and will also lead to an environmental disaster. Indeed, industrial fishers and the French government are trying to make the future EU Control Regulation match the illegal ‘legal’ exception they have created for themselves through this ‘circular’. They are asking for a ‘margin of tolerance’ – i.e. a margin of error – of 10% on catches declared on the total catch and not species by species, as is the case in the current EU Control Regulation. “This semantic change may seem insignificant, but if this request were accepted, the repercussions for marine ecosystems and coastal economies in the Indian Ocean would be catastrophic,” warns Frédéric Le Manach, scientific director of BLOOM. “Such a change would make the collection of quality data incredibly unlikely, as the species making up these catches would no longer matter but the overall ‘volume’ of the catch. This would have dramatic consequences for the monitoring of the health of marine ecosystems and the establishment of proper quotas. It would allow the continued overfishing of already endangered species, such as yellowfin and bigeye tuna.”
In a response to BLOOM on 17 February 2023, the French State refers to the circular as an obsolete text, but does not change anything as the French government has failed to repeal its own illegal derogations. BLOOM is bringing the matter before the French Council of State today to put an end to the illegal catches of the French fleets.
In addition, BLOOM is also bringing a case before the Administrative Court in the face of the French administration’s implicit refusal to transmit key data on the control of French tuna vessels and on the number and location of the highly technological floating rafts that the industry is using to catch every last fish in Africa: the so-called drifting ‘fish aggregating devices’ (FADs) (see section ‘Find out more’). After receiving a favorable opinion from the French Commission for Access to Administrative Documents (Commission d’accès aux documents administratifs; CADA) on the nature of its requests, BLOOM hopes that the Court will be highly responsive, as each day that passes allows French fleets to plunder African waters with total impunity.
A groundbreaking analysis shows France’s lack of control over tuna fishing fleets
In a groundbreaking analysis, we reveal today that the French State does close to nothing to control its tuna vessels, although they represent a major part of French fishing. Our analysis, which is based on fisheries control statistics published for the first time by France, shows that the State has set no concrete control objectives for its tuna fisheries in 2022 and 2023. Even if some controls have been carried out – despite the absence of objectives – in areas where these vessels are active, the information in our possession tends to show that these controls concern almost exclusively foreign vessels, and that French tuna vessels are hardly – if ever – inspected at sea or in port.
This lack of control is not a surprise since it is what motivated the European Commission to open an infringement procedure against France in 2021, following an audit conducted in 2018. What is more surprising is that despite the threat of legal action before the European Court of Justice, France has still not acted on any changes and continues to turn a blind eye to the destructive practices and organized fraud in tuna fishing.
The consequences of the State’s complicity in the conduct of fisheries are very real, and terrible, not only for the marine ecosystems that have been destroyed, but also for the coastal communities that depend on them. France must get its affairs in order to finally represent the general interest in a democratic and transparent way, instead of defending a clique of industrial fishers that misbehave in every possible way.
Find out more
Tuna is the most consumed fish in France, with almost 4 kg/person/year(5). Yet it is not bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus), the emblematic species in the Mediterranean, which is the most consumed, but tropical species: mainly bonito (Katsuwonus pelamis) and yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares), as well as bigeye tuna (Thunnus obesus), which is caught in smaller proportions by the same vessels.
European tropical tuna fishing takes place mainly in the Indian Ocean, to a lesser extent in the Atlantic Ocean, and marginally in the Pacific Ocean. The vessels involved are exclusively French and Spanish and average over 80m in length, going up to 116m. In France, three companies are grouped together in the Orthongel union and own 23 vessels. In Spain, the landscape is more fragmented, with two unions – OPAGAC and ANABAC – grouping together some 15 fishing companies with 27 vessels. In addition to these vessels, there are at least(6) 48 vessels that are flagged outside of the EU, but which are mostly Spanish-owned (only three are French-owned).
The fishing method used by these vessels is called ‘purse seining’, which consists of a vertical net nearly 2km long and 300m high that is deployed around the tuna school with the help of a small support vessel. The seine is then closed from below with a sliding system, allowing the entire school to be caught. Almost all catches by European purse seiners are now made using drifting Fish Aggregating Devices (d-FADs), which generate huge quantities of juvenile tuna, but also of non-target species such as sea turtles, sharks, rays, etc. This problem is particularly significant in the Indian Ocean, where three figures summarize the scale of the FAD problem:
- EU tuna companies made 96% of their catches under d-FADs in 2018 in the Indian Ocean (where they are one of the major players in industrial fishing and the almost exclusive user of drifting FADs)(7);
- 97% of yellowfin tuna (an overfished species) caught by European purse seiners in the Indian Ocean between 2015 and 2019 were juveniles(8);
- 77% of all juvenile bigeye tuna (another overfished species) caught in the Indian Ocean came from seine fishing(9);
As French and Spanish purse seiners are major players in industrial tuna fishery in the Indian Ocean and their catches are mainly composed of juveniles, they therefore play a major role in the degradation of marine ecosystems and the overfishing of two of the three target species, yellowfin and bigeye tuna: yellowfin tuna was classified as overfished in 2015(10), bigeye tuna joined it in 2022(11), and bonito has never been fished at such a high level as in 2022(12), far exceeding the catch limit recommended by scientists (680,000 tons caught against the 513,000 recommended). With the next stock assessment of this species due this year, it is difficult to remain optimistic.
(1) Sapmer, one of the three French companies involved in these tuna fisheries, also has three vessels registered in Mauritius (see ‘Find out more).
(2) See our investigation file: https://www.bloomassociation.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/The-wild-west-of-tuna-fisheries-in-Africa-BLOOM-November-2022.pdf.
(3) The French circular is in direct contradiction with the Control Regulation (EC) No 1224/2009.
(4) See the European Union’s press release on this topic. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/%20en/inf_22_5402.
(5) Source: FranceAgriMer
(6) It is sometimes difficult to track which company owns which vessel, so it is possible that this figure is understated.
(7) Source: IOTC data.
(9) Source: IOTC data.