Electric fishing: the European Commission agrees with us, but lets the Netherlands cheat

After our referral to the European Ombudsman on 5 June 2020 and the opening of her enquiry on 14 July 2020 into the European Commission’s failure to fulfil its obligations, the European Commission finally acknowledged that the Netherlands had issued an illegal number of derogations to equip its vessels with electric trawls. Did our complaints finally force the Netherlands to comply with the law? Not quite, given that the European Commission, through a mind-boggling mis-interpretation of the regulation in force, still allows the Netherlands to keep almost 50% of illegal derogations; a dangerous precedent!


Since 2007, each EU Member State has been able to convert a maximum of 5% of its beam trawl fleet to electric fishing in the southern part of the North Sea. The Netherlands, the only one to use this derogation (notwithstanding a few UK- and German-flagged vessels, all under Dutch capitals), has gone well beyond this legal framework, officially equipping 84 vessels instead of the 15 required by law.[1] Since the implementation of the new European regulation providing for a total and definitive ban on electric fishing on 1 July 2021, the Netherlands has desequipped 62 of these vessels, reaching 22 vessels in January 2020. Still seven too many!

The Commission agrees with us…

In a letter addressed to BLOOM on 30 July 2020 — in the middle of summer to avoid too quick a response? — the European Commission confirmed the validity of our complaints and conceded that the Netherlands was indeed in breach of the law. However, we have continuously been saying this since 2 October 2017, date of our first complaint, and the Commission even announced on 1 February 2019 that it was considering opening a “formal infringement procedure against the Netherlands” for failing to comply with the law. A promise that went unheeded. It should be recalled that in 2018, a legal expert also confirmed the scandals surrounding this file by describing a very surprising mechanism that was used to authorise this destructive fishing method.[2]

> Read our answer

…but opens the door to a dangerous precedent

Despite this belated (but welcome) acknowledgement, the Commission persists by misinterpreting the new regulation in an erroneous and abusive way to allow the Netherlands to keep its seven illegal derogations. By welcoming the fact that it has “obtained the necessary assurances from this Member State that a system would be implemented shortly, guaranteeing that no more than 15 beam trawlers using pulsed electric current would be allowed to operate simultaneously”, it is performing a dangerous sleight of hand to avoid taking responsibility for its serious failures.

“It is unacceptable that the European Commission continues to invent sleights of hand for this multi-fraudulent Member State. The European regulation is crystal clear: there can be no more than 15 vessels for the Netherlands until 1 July 2021, at which point electric trawls will be desequipped, not 15 vessels operating simultaneously, with the others waiting their turn in port! The difference is immense, and confirming this abusive interpretation would be very dangerous because it would set a slippery precedent”, says Frédéric Le Manach, BLOOM’s scientific director. “It’s not as if the problem were new: the Netherlands has been trampling on European regulations on this subject for the past ten years. The Netherlands’ continuous misappropriation of funds has had a detrimental effect on small-scale fishing in the North Sea and has fostered public mistrust in European institutions. While the industry has grown fat, small-scale coastal fishers have gone out of business. The Commission cannot continue to turn a blind eye to this”, continues Sabine Rosset, BLOOM’s director.

A case of serious moral corruption

After a failed attempt to legalise electric fishing, and thus cover up all the dubious legal subterfuges that made it possible to reintroduce a prohibited fishing gear,[3] the European Commission continues its headlong rush. It is being dictated detrimental corporate wishes by a rogue Member State, in utter defiance of democracy, small-scale fishers and the protection of the ocean. We expect actions that are more in line with the Commission’s role of Guardian of the Treaties from the European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, who promised to properly enforce regulations during his hearing in the European Parliament.[4] Such decisions in favour of industrial lobbies can only have deleterious impacts on European citizens’ trust in their institutions. Should the European Commission not reverse its decision to close our complaints, BLOOM would once again file a complaint for fraud. Now more than ever, electric fishing is a matter of respect for democracy and the fight against corruption.

To go further

BLOOM has been wrestling with the European Commission for almost three years, so that it fullfils its role of Guardian of the Treaties.

2 October 2017: BLOOM’s campaign to ban electrofishing officially starts with a complaint to the European Commission against the Netherlands, which had 84 ‘research’ derogations while the regulations allowed it to grant only 15 licences.

16 April 2018: BLOOM files another complaint against the Netherlands as it is the only major fishing nation in Europe that has not published its list of beneficiaries for public subsidies allocated to its fleets between 2007 and 2014. This period corresponds to the illegal and abusive development of electric fishing.

13 June 2018: BLOOM and 22 organisations call for the opening of a European enquiry for suspicion of fraud with the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). The signatories question the legality of subsidies allocated to electric fishing.

6 November 2018: In the absence of a response to our complaint of 2 October 2017, BLOOM refers the matter to the European Ombudsman, who is responsible for arbitrating cases of maladministration of European institutions, calling for an inquiry regarding serious administrative failures by the European Commission.

1 February 2019: Thanks to pressure from the Ombudsman, the Fisheries Directorate of the European Commission finally agrees with BLOOM and announces that it is up to the College of Commissioners to decide whether or not to open a “formal infringement procedure against the Netherlands” for failing to comply with the law.

18 September 2019: BLOOM once again files a complaint against the Netherlands with the European Commission. From the implementation of the new Technical Measure Regulation on 14 August 2019 to the total ban on electric fishing on 1 July 2021, a maximum of 5% of each Member State’s beam trawler fleet is authorised to carry out electric fishing. The Netherlands continues to violate this regulation by retaining 42 licences at the date of the complaint (22 since January 2020).

5 June 2020: In view of the repeated violations of European regulations by the Netherlands and in the absence of a satisfactory response from the European Commission to our complaints, BLOOM once again refers the matter to the European Ombudsman and calls for sanctions to finally be taken against this Member State.

Notes and references

[1] See our advocacy document, which provides a detailed history of electric fishing in Europe: https://www.bloomassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/plaidoyer-peche-electrique-v3.pdf.

[2] Michel Morin is an associate member of the Maritime and Oceanic Law Centre (CDMO) of the Law faculty of Nantes. He stated that “This affair seems to indicate poor functioning of the EU method […] the Commission seems to have given in to the will of one of the Council’s Member States, when, as guardian of the treaty, it should have taken a strong stance. How should we interpret the fact that it ignored scientific advice to this extent, then turned a blind eye to the illegal extension of this electric pulse fishing?”.

[3] BLOOM produced a report entitled “Electric fishing: a perfect case of moral corruption”, which exposed the political scandals, the collusion between institutions and corporate interests, the scientific imposture and the financial scandal of electric fishing.

[4] At his hearing, the Commissioner stated: “Legislation is only as good as its implementation. I would work closely with the Member States to improve that implementation in  all  policy areas.  Using  every tool  at  my disposal,  that  includes dialogue,  the  Environment implementation review, infringement proceedings and the EU court. We need laws that work for our citizens, for environment and for oceans and fisheries and for businesses across the EU.” Available at: www.europarl.europa.eu/resources/library/media/20191004RES63404/20191004RES63404.pdf

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