Electric fishing: outrageous cherry-picking from Belgian science

Dutch newspaper ‘Telegraaph’ daringly concluded in early May that electric ‘pulse’ fishing did “not cause any demonstrable damage to fish stocks in the sea[1] based on a press statement released by the Belgian Institute for agricultural and fisheries research (ILVO).[2] On its website, ILVO recounts results of research carried out by PhD student Dr. Marieke Desender. ILVO takes a shocking, but very clear position in favor of electric pulse fishing. Its press release particularly emphasizes a recent dubious scientific study that looked at the impacts of electric currents on the eggs and larvae of sole and which bears fundamental flaws and questionable methodology.[3] It also summarizes previous research developed to test the impacts of electrical currents on food seeker organs of shark species, whose results are also highly questionable as detailed further below.[4]

Both the ‘Telegraaph’ article and the scientific study were hastily used by a Dutch MEP (Peter van Dalen) and Fisheries Commissioner Karmenu Vella to assert that electric fishing was sustainable and that the European Parliament made a mistake when it voted for a full ban on electric fishing in January 2018.[5]

Outrageous cherry-picking

Both MEP Peter van Dalen and Fisheries Commissioner Karmenu Vella have jumped on the opportunity offered by low-quality science with questionable methodology to try to justify their shameful and biased political stance in favor of electric trawling.[6] Although scientific publications have indicated numerous problems caused by electric fishing, the ardent defenders of pulse trawling have systematically dismissed or ignored the overwhelming data that incriminate the use of electric current.

This cherry-picking of science is not acceptable, especially coming from the EU Commissioner for Fisheries.

Dutch MEP van Dalen has been acting within the European Parliament as the Dutch industry’s prominent lobbyist for years, so his position comes as no surprise, but European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Mr. Karmenu Vella, should know better and should double-check his moral standing and scientific facts before putting his political weight behind such undue generalization of dubious science. Mr. Vella did not have to stand by past mistakes and biased decision-making done by DG Mare’s services in favor of authorizing a prohibited fishing gear. But he did. His obstinate choice to defend a destructive fishing method, which the rest of the world is increasingly banning, just when Europe is supposed to implement the sustainability objectives it fully committed to, is nothing short of shameful.

The Parliament can rest assured that it made the right choice to massively vote for a ban on electric fishing: this fishing method goes against all the objectives set forth by the Common Fisheries Policy, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, the precautionary principle, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in September 2015 by the United Nations’ General Assembly and which aim to end destructive fishing practices by 2020.[7]

The ‘Telegraaph’ newspaper article asserts that “pulse fishing does not cause any demonstrable damage to fish stocks in the sea“, but the scientific studies in question do not support this conclusion.

Questionable protocols and biased results

Regarding the study on the eggs and larvae of soles

  • The electrical parameters used in the scientific study have nothing in common with those used by most vessels in the North Sea. The authors applied direct current used to target shrimps, which is less damaging for life than the bipolar current used to target flatfish.[8] Thus, results on eggs and larvae cannot be generalized to all types of electric ‘pulse’ fishing. Amalgamating the two techniques is either proof of bad faith or of poor knowledge of the file.
  • The scientific study focuses on the eggs and larvae of soles only. Its conclusions cannot be generalized to all species since the current impacts different species in a variable way. The same author notably found detrimental impacts of electricity on cod eggs and larvae,[9] as publicly acknowledged on 15 January 2018 by Dutch researcher Adriaan Rijnsdorp (co-Chair of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea’s working group on electric fishing WGELECTRA).
  • The scientific study concludes that “other sublethal effects, behavioral alterations, or long-term effects were not addressed“. It is therefore specified that these results should be taken with extreme caution because they only address a minute portion of the problem.

Furthermore, we consider the scientific protocol and results of the new study to be dubious because:

  • All samples were infected by a fungus and therefore treated with hydrogen peroxide! A serious scientific protocol would have at least required re-starting the experiment with healthy embryos. This fundamental flaw disqualifies the results.
  • Results do not demonstrate that electricity has no impacts, but that electrocuting eggs increases their survival rate! Such a shocking result should represent the core of the scientific discussion in the paper or should be clearly dismissed as unexplained or inconclusive, but on the contrary, the author neither discussed nor questioned this obvious flaw.
  • The rest of the scientific protocol is also questionable: a set of eggs was electrocuted for five seconds two days after fertilization, and a set of larvae was exposed to the same treatment 11 days after hatching. However, there is no mention of other developmental phases. The protocol followed for cod eggs was more accurate with experiments being done for several days after fertilization and after hatching (and exhibiting different impacts).
  • The study is incomplete. Only the egg and larvae stages were studied, but not the critical juvenile stage.
  • Furthermore, cumulative effects were not studied: eggs and larvae were electrocuted only once, with mild parameters compared to what can occur at sea, and not several times as could be the case in real conditions.

The protocol of the present study is extremely weak and its results extremely odd, but its timing extremely convenient politically with Trilogue negotiations, started in March 2018, possibly wrapping up soon.

Regarding the study on the food seeker organs of shark species

  • As for the previous study, the electrical parameters that were used have nothing in common with those used by most vessels in the North Sea. The authors applied direct current used to target shrimps, which is less damaging for life than the bipolar current used to target flatfish.
  • The species used — the small-spotted catshark — is known to be extremely resistant and thus not the most appropriate species to measure a sensitivity to anything.

Furthermore, we consider the scientific protocol and results of the new study to be dubious because:

  • Shark specimens were placed in small tanks and did not need to hunt for food in the experiment, so although its conclusions are that there is no proven impact, the protocol did not allow the measurement of such impact.
  • Shark specimens were subjected to a single electrical impulse.

The eagerness with which the most ardent defenders of electric fishing at EU level used the results of these studies — despite their scientific weaknesses — speaks volumes about the biased political agenda of the European Commission during Trilogue negotiations.

These studies failed to enlighten the debate with solid results but it did help to clarify the shameful bias of the European Commission in favor of the large-scale Dutch fishing industry.

In January 2018, the European Commission adopted a new Code of Conduct which is supposed to “set new standards for ethical rules in Europe. Citizens may have to wait a bit longer for this acclaimed objective to become reality.

Notes and references

[1] Available at: www.telegraaf.nl/financieel/2008484/pulsvisserij-veroorzaakt-geen-schade

[2] Available at: www.ilvo.vlaanderen.be/language/en-US/EN/Press-and-Media/All-media/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/4928/Shrimp-electropulse-fishing-Study-of-possible-side-effects-delivers-reassuring-results.aspx#.Ww1P5EiFMdU

[3] Desender et al. (2018) Pulse Trawling: The Impact of Pulsed Direct Current on Early Life Stages of Sole Solea solea. North Am. J. Fish. Manag. 38, 432–438. https://doi.org/10.1002/nafm.10039

[4] Desender et al. (2017) Pulse trawling: evaluating its impact on prey detection by small-spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula). Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 486: 336–343

[5] Available at: www.vissersbond.nl/brussel-belooft-flexibiliteit-bij-invoering-aanlandplicht/

[6] Karmenu Vella declared: “To pulse, I was present for the parliamentary discussion. To be honest, I think the discussion was, again, more political than scientific. Why am I saying this. Because we have scientific assessments, and the scientific assessments are very very clear. Again, we can be consistent when it comes to science. I don’t think we can be very consistent when it comes to political approaches. But, again, I have noted the European Parliament’s position on that.”, available at: http://web.ep.streamovations.be/index.php/event/stream/20180515-0900-committee-pech

[7] See BLOOM’s advocacy document, available at: www.bloomassociation.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/electric-fishing-advocacy-doc-v2.pdf.

[8] Soetaert (2015) Electrofishing: exploring the safety range of electric pulses for marine species and its potential for further innovation. PhD dissertation. Ghent University.

[9] Desender et al. (2017) Impact of Pulsed Direct Current on Embryos, Larvae, and Young Juveniles of Atlantic Cod and its Implications for Electrotrawling of Brown Shrimp. Mar. Coast. Fish. 9, 330–340. https://doi.org/10.1080/19425120.2017.1321592

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