Covid-19: Let’s preserve small-scale coastal fishers to safeguard our common good and our future.

The global sanitary crisis we are facing is a brutal and necessary challenge to the way we treat people who, on a daily basis, are on the front line of protecting the common good.

While for more than fifty years, the predation of industrial fleets combined with poor public policies has jeopardized the future of fishing and contributed to unprecedented destruction of the ocean, small-scale coastal fishers are struggling in the current crisis to ensure the sustainability of fisheries that can preserve the ocean and our future.

Small-scale fisheries, a strategic sector in the fight against climate change

Overfishing is the main cause of ocean destruction. It is the direct result of a race for technological innovation by industrial fishing, which has favoured the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few players, with the objective is to fish faster, farther and deeper in order to maximize profits. Deep-sea fishing, electric fishing, Danish seine or the huge pelagic trawlers that plunder the seas are just a few examples.

Faced with the steamroller of industrial fishing, small-scale coastal fishers are the gatekeepers of the transition to sustainable fishing, the only way to ensure the future of the ocean. Indeed, due to generally lower impact fishing gears, low catches and good value for money, small-scale fishing contributes to the preservation of marine ecosystems. Moreover, it provides many more jobs than industrial fishing: 14% of the volumes fished, for 52% of jobs [1].

Dynamics of the current crisis

In recent weeks, the sudden closure of restaurants and then open markets and the unprecedented reduction in exports have led to an unprecedented drop in fish consumption in France. While it would have allowed small-scale fishers to sell their catches, dockside sales are also banned except where exemptions are granted by prefects. Unsurprisingly, prices have plummeted. As a result, fishers have been forced to sell their fish at a very low price – sometimes a few euro cents per kilo – or to throw it away. Producer Organisations (POs) bought back fish from their members by applying the withdrawal price, a minimum price guaranteed all year round even in the absence of demand. As for auctions, some have closed (Dunkirk, Port-la-Nouvelle, Royan, etc.) while others operate only part-time. At Rungis, France’s main wholesale food market, the fish sector fell by 80 to 85%. Since then, prices have risen again, some auctions have reopened but the volumes sold remain low and the market is still very fragile.

Fishers are now faced with a dilemma: either to stay in port to avoid contamination but with no guarantee of receiving any aid [2] or to take the risk of going fishing with no guarantee of selling the catch. The situation is changing rapidly but, in the absence of guaranteed financial support, more and more fishers are going back to sea. This cessation of activity will therefore be particularly detrimental to fishing enterprises with little cash flow. They are weather-dependent and have already spent a particularly difficult winter and are therefore more vulnerable than ever. This crisis could turn into a fatal blow if no measures are taken to help them cope with this crisis.

The situation of fishers also varies by occupation and region. Gillnetters in the North, for example, are in an alarming situation: they have been hauling empty nets for several months because of the impact of electric fishing – still authorised to some extent until June 2021. Last year they called for a moratorium to allow their main target species, sole, to replenish the North Sea, but it was rejected. On the other hand, handliners in Brittany are traditionally at a complete standstill until 15 March while sea bass spawning season.

It is therefore essential that the diversity which constitutes the wealth of small-scale fishing be considered in the implementation of aids. A monolithically applied aid policy would only benefit industrial fishing and would entail the destruction of the structure of small-scale coastal fishing.

The opportunism of retailers

Since March, the fear of shortages has encouraged citizens to build up food reserves, especially canned fish and frozen products. In general, these products come from industrial fishing (tuna, cod, etc.) or aquaculture (salmon). Through its recommendations, the UN is largely playing into the hands of the industrial lobbies by encouraging the consumption of canned tuna on Twitter. For years, major retail brands, and in particular Carrefour, have been favouring the misleading MSC label, which almost exclusively consists of industrial fishing. Leclerc even goes as far as promoting farmed fish – far from being a solution – while making consumers feel guilty with the message: “Eat fresh French fish or the fishers will stay at the dock“. After having brought small-scale coastal fishing to its knees, retailers are now playing the good Samaritan and regaining their virginity by boasting on social networks about sourcing French local fish in order to support the sector.

Instead, BLOOM advises citizens who wish to eat fish to favour direct sales channels. While the offer has been considerably reduced, it is still possible to buy fish in supermarkets but by choosing fish caught with low-impact gears.

The giant trawlers’ plundering

A few days ago, BLOOM condemned the presence of four giant trawlers in the Bay of Biscay while coastal fishers had to stay docked. These vessels are owned by two Dutch multinationals: Parlevliet & van der Plas and Cornelis Vrolijk, at the head of a sprawling empire throughout Europe. In France, for example, the company France Pélagique, which owns two giant trawlers, the Sandettie and the Prins Bernhard, is a subsidiary of Cornelis Vrolijk. Its former managing director,[3] Antoine Dhellemmes is also Vice-President of the National Fisheries Committee and President of OP FROM Nord, which manages more than 128,000 tonnes of quotas in France, i.e. almost 40% of the national quota.

This very strong presence of Dutch interests in the French fisheries sector is not insignificant and largely explains the continued betrayal of small-scale coastal fishers by their representatives. As a reminder, during the vote on electric fishing in the European Parliament in January 2018, the National Fisheries Committee had asked MEPs to vote in favour of the amendments that would have allowed the large-scale development of electric fishing in Europe.![4]

The greed of Dutch industrial fishing

The slowing down of destructive fishing activities could represent a welcome biological resting period for some marine species. However, some see it as an opportunity to ask for an increase in fishing quotas in order to “make up for lost time” once the crisis is over. For example, the Dutch industry has already obtained a 10% annual quota carry-over for 2021 if it is not used in 2020, and continues to push for this share to be increased to 25%. This is a predatory approach whose sole aim is to satisfy a few private interests, violating the common interest, and which would further strengthen the already enormous reach of Dutch industrial fishing in Europe.

In this time of crisis, BLOOM remains committed to helping small-scale coastal fishers. We will closely monitor the package of measures announced in the coming weeks and will keep you informed of our next actions.


Notes and references

[1] See the 2019 STECF report, available at:

[2] Companies can benefit from a deferral of charges and their bank maturities of 6 months. If losses of turnover are over 50%, bosses can be compensated by up to 1 500 euros. Sailors can benefit from short-time working, a lump sum depending on the category of the sailor.

[3] Since January 2020, his son Geoffroy Dhellemmes has taken over the management of France Pélagique according to an article published in Le Marin on 2 April 2020.

[4] At that time, another influential figure also had close ties with Dutch industry: Hervé Jeantet, President of FranceAgriMer, was then CEO of Dhellemmes fishing company. In 2014, Mr Jeantet wanted electric fishing to be tested in the Bay of Biscay, according to an article in the regional daily newspaper Ouest France.

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