Electric fishing: LIFE and 36 European fishers demand reimbursement of illegal subsidies

The Netherlands is endeavouring to legalise electric fishing. The Dutch government has submitted its case to Court of Justice of the European Union, which will deliver its judgment on 15 April on whether or not to repeal the ban on electric fishing. As the scandal reaches its height – because let’s not forget that the Netherlands has and continues to cheat on the number of derogations allowed – LIFE, the European platform of small-scale fishers (Low Impact Fishers of Europe) along with 36 French, Belgian, English and Dutch fishermen, have requested that the public subsidies that financed the development of electric fishing be reimbursed[1], via a complaint addressed to the European Commission’s competition department.

> Read the complaint and the annexes

Illegal European subsidies

In a scientific publication published in March 2019, BLOOM demonstrated that at least 21.5 million euros had been allocated to support, legitimise and develop electric fishing in the Netherlands.[2] However, financial support from the European Union is subject to strict compliance with the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).[3] By equipping more vessels with electric fishing than was actually allowed, the Netherlands has clearly violated the EU’s regulatory framework. As the European Commission has acknowledged this infringement, it follows that the EU subsidies for the development of electric fishing are also completely illegal.

State aid incompatible with the internal market

As soon as they are considered illegal, these subsidies from two consecutive European fisheries funds[4] become what European law calls “state aid”. State aids are defined by four criteria: 1) they are granted to an enterprise, 2) by a State or through State resources, 3) they confer an advantage on that enterprise (the so-called ‘selective’ benefit), and 4) they affect or may affect trade between States or competition.[5] In principle, such aids are prohibited by the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Only certain types of aid are authorised under a derogation system. In the case of state aid for electric fishing, this is also illegal. By not respecting the framework imposed by the CFP, this aid is in fact contrary to European law and is therefore incompatible with the internal market. “These subsidies are, by definition, illegal, since they have been granted to vessels that are themselves illegal. Beyond this simple fact, they are doubly so, since European subsidies cannot finance devices that increase the fishing capacity of vessels. However, several scientific sources indicate that the use of electric trawls increases fishing capacity.[6] This aid has thus created unfair competition with North Sea fishermen and distorted the market,” explains Frédéric Le Manach, Scientific Director of BLOOM.

The cheats could even get financial compensation

So let’s recap on the tawdry situation: the Netherlands is seeking to repeal the total ban on electric fishing, scheduled for 1 July 2021. At the same time, it continues to infringe on European law by maintaining 22 temporary derogations – seven more than allowed – with the scandalous approval of the European Commission. The Dutch government has also referred the matter to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), which is expected to deliver its judgment on 15 April 2021. The Dutch Minister claims that the EU did not rely on scientific advice to ban electric fishing. But Brian O’Riordan, Director of LIFE, explains that “electric fishing is incompatible with the objectives of the Common Fisheries Policy, which must apply the precautionary approach to fisheries management. Unlike the European Commission, the Parliament has taken its responsibilities seriously by banning this destructive fishing gear. We trust that justice will prevail in this case.

Following the withdrawal of part of the illegal derogations, the industrial fishing lobbies VisNed and Vissersbond have even launched two proceedings against their own government – which is defending them tooth and nail in their illegal enterprise – to claim compensation following the withdrawal of the illegal licences. Coincidentally, our complaint against EU subsidies and illegal state aid comes a few weeks after a ruling by the Court of The Hague that some of the Dutch fishermen,[7] who have had their illegal licences withdrawn, are eligible for financial compensation! But another judgement of the Court of Rotterdam decided to wait for the decision of the EU Court – CJEU – before deciding on possible compensation. “This is the world upside down; fishermen who practice electric fishing have benefited from illegal derogations, illegal subsidies, and now they could get compensation following the withdrawal of illegal licences. This decision fuels the anger of honest fishermen who are now in a serious situation. We expect the Commission to take a decision that restores justice by demanding, at the very least, the reimbursement of the illegal aid.”, protests Stéphane Pinto, vice-president of the Hauts-de-France Regional Fisheries Committee and co-plaintiff.

Reconvert or disappear

The social impact of electric fishing is dramatic for the fleets around the North Sea. Some small-scale fishers have been able to reconvert, but others have gone bankrupt or are waiting for scrapping grants to stop their activities. The supply of fish, particularly sole, had become so low that the Dunkirk fish auction closed down in October 2020, with the French government showing total indifference.

In the Netherlands, electric fishing is far from being unanimously supported, despite the Dutch government’s determination to defend the fishing industry that uses this technique. Five Dutch fishermen have had the courage to join as co-complaints. “By allowing this technique, the precautionary principle has been violated. The Netherlands has acted very irresponsibly, has committed fraud and therefore received unjustified subsidies. That is why I am signing this complaint“, explains Ger de Ruiter, a Dutch small-scale fishers and member of the C-LIFE association.

As long as the European Commission does not take action against this obvious case of fraud, the electric fishing issue will continue to be a hot topic. The Commission has the opportunity to put an end to this scandal by finally assuming its responsibilities and fulfilling its role as Guardian of the Treaties. It still needs the political will to put an end to this charade and to assume its past mistakes.

Notes and references

[1] BLOOM cannot lodge a complaint because it has no interest in acting, unlike the fishermen who are in direct competition with the trawlers using electric current. Each fisherman has therefore sent his individual complaint file to the European Commission.

[2] The funding in question came from two European funds: the European Fisheries Fund (EFF, 2007-2016) and the European Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Fund (EMFF, 2014-2020).

[3] It should be noted that the European fisheries funds are the financial tools whose aim is precisely to achieve the objectives of the CFP. Logically, the projects that benefit from this financial support must therefore respect the rules of the CFP.

[4] The European Fisheries Fund (EFF), which covered the period 2007-2014, and the European Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), which covered the period 2014-2020.

[5] https://ec.europa.eu/competition/forms/intro_en.html

[6] Two examples are given:

  • WGELECTRA (Working Group on Electric Trawling) reported in 2018 that “the greater efficiency of electric trawling for sole implies that the quota can be reached/consumed in less time than with traditional beam trawling”
  • In a report by an ICES working group on innovative fishing gear commissioned by the European Commission, it is mentioned that electric fishing is too efficient: “It needs a fundamental shift in the ability to control fishing, as it is in effect too good.”

[7] Fishermen who have been granted a permanent derogation could receive financial compensation. This is the group of the first derogations issued under Article 31a of Regulation 850/98, but also the illegal one covered by “scientific research” and Article 43 of Regulation 850/98. On the other hand, vessels with a temporary derogation, the so-called “pilot project” group under Article 14 of Regulation 1380/2013, are not eligible for compensation.


Share :