01 August 2023
French authorities turn a blind eye to illegal fishing in Calanques National Park
01 August 2023
In the Mediterranean, at a time when marine heatwaves have been breaking records for several years, leading to the accelerated destruction of marine ecosystems, the French government is refusing to create genuine Marine Protected Areas to increase the resilience of the ocean and ensure its effective protection, with controls and penalties for illegal fishing. For example, a habitually offending poacher who has been arrested ten times since 2005 is continuing his fishing activities in the Calanques National Park, benefiting from the connivance of the French administration, which has still not taken any sanctions against him and even went so far as to defend him at his trial!
In the face of the administration’s manifest negligence, BLOOM is calling on the government to make the data on inspections carried out on the French fishing fleet in the Mediterranean public, as well as the penalties imposed.
This complicity of the State with fraudsters not only has dramatic environmental consequences, it also deeply punishes and demotivates those fishers who strive to abide by the law. When the guarantor of the rule of law and justice gives a bonus to cheats by endorsing their misdeeds, it is the whole ethic of a profession that is dragged into the fall of state ethics.
In November 2022, a trawler was caught red-handed operating in the Calanques National Park1 with 146.7 kg of illegally caught fish, it was the tenth time the trawler had been stopped by the Gendarmerie Maritime for similar offences.
This professional fisher with 40 years’ experience knows full well that at this time of year, the gilt-head bream is in the middle of its reproduction period, and therefore particularly vulnerable. Yet, he places himself on the fish’s migration corridor, an area protected specifically to prevent this type of poaching, and catches a staggering number in a very short space of time. In addition to the strong impact of this harvest on the species and the balance of the ecosystem, the method used – bottom trawling – is one of the most damaging to the seabed.
In June 2023, during his trial for which the Calanques National Park and environmental associations2 were plaintiffs, the poacher used arguments based on dishonest claims to defend himself before the Marseilles Correctional Court3. He dared to say: “I didn’t hide. I thought I was in the right”, even though, as a professional fisher, he knows it is forbidden to trawl anywhere in France within the three-nautical-mile band4, apart from certain areas subject to exceptional derogations. He must have known the law: in the past, he had already applied for exceptional exemptions, notably to trawl in the maritime part of the national park, outside the three-mile zone.5
IS TRAWLING BANNED OR NOT? PROOF OF THE INEFFECTIVENESS OF THE CONVOLUTED “FRENCH-STYLE” PROTECTION SYSTEM
Is the Calanques National Park protected or not? Are fishing methods with a high environmental impact, such as bottom trawling, allowed in French marine parks or not?
The answer is as convoluted as the French protection regime: sometimes yes, sometimes no. No French “Marine Protected Area” meets the international criteria established by the IUCN (see appendix “Further information”). “In France, there are no statutorily protected areas,” explains Swann Bommier, BLOOM’s advocacy officer. “When a fraction of a park or reserve is truly protected, it’s by virtue of a specific will, a series of unpredictable decrees, orders or decisions, absolutely not by virtue of a stable process and clear categories of protection. Welcome to the world of protection ‘à la française’!
The result of this administrative complexity is inefficiency for all concerned: parks that are difficult for the competent authorities to manage, a lack of ecological benefits for marine ecosystems, non-regeneration of fish biomass, and therefore a lack of economic impact for fishers… The many layers of marine protection within the Calanques National Park is no exception to the extremely complicated rule created by France out of excessive complacency towards the fishing industry: a no-take zone, a reinforced protection zone, a ‘coeur marin’ (‘marine heartland’), an adjacent maritime area, the three-mile coastal zone… here more than seven protection regimes apply in a small space! (see appendix “Further information”)
“The French government’s ineffective system for protecting against bottom trawling in so-called ‘protected’ areas is a lose-lose system that also generates a great deal of frustration,” adds Swann Bommier. Indeed, this useless and inefficient administrative imbroglio frustrates NGOs, conservationists and park managers alike.
FRAUD FACILITATED BY A LACK OF CONTROLS
During his trial, the incriminated fisher’s multiple repeat offences were highlighted: 2005, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2020, 2022. Faced with the evidence, the fisher defended himself by saying he hadn’t been poaching for over two years. To which the Marseilles vice-prosecutor retorted that if his list of offences wasn’t longer, it was simply because he hadn’t been caught red-handed more often. In fact, with 0.4 inspections at sea per vessel in the Mediterranean in 20226, the probability of being inspected for illegal fishing is now close to zero.
In view of the seriousness of the offences, with “€2, €3, €4 and €7,000 worth of catch” illegally destroying marine ecosystems rich in biodiversity, the prosecutor’s demand against the poacher was for a €40,000 fine and a four-year suspension of his fishing license. He was finally sentenced by the Marseilles Magistrates’ Court to a €15,000 fine and a one-year suspension of his fishing license. Having appealed, these sanctions will not apply until the Court of Appeal has ruled. Until then, the trawler can continue its activities outside the three-mile zone. Today, it was in the Mediterranean Sea.
This cat-and-mouse game has been going on for over 15 years. But, even more than the lack of control, it is the silence of the public administration that raises questions.
THE FRENCH ADMINISTRATION’S COMPLACENCY TOWARDS ILLEGAL FISHING IN MEDITERRANEAN MARINE PROTECTED AREAS
In the event of infringements, and in addition to criminal prosecution, the administrative authorities have one year after the facts have been established to impose penalties – fines, suspension of fishing license, cancellation of derogations, etc. – on the offender7.
But more than seven months after the fact, what has the French administration done to put an end to this fraud? Nothing. On the contrary, before the Marseilles Magistrates’ Court, the administrative authorities attempted to justify the fisher‘s criminal actions by arguing that “some people don’t understand that such a resource is not accessible to them. They are living in the past, with practices from another era when environmental issues were less important”.
This episode was not an isolated one: a few months earlier, the DDTM (Direction départementale des territoires et de la mer, English: Departmental Management for Territories and the Sea) had produced, at the request of the habitually offending poacher, an “advisory opinion” in favor of granting him an exemption to trawl in the three-mile zone, against the multiple opinions produced by IFREMER (Institut français de recherche pour l’exploitation de la mer, English: French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea). This “advisory opinion” was never ratified, but it was referred to by the poacher’s lawyer during his trial, testifies to a worrying complacency on the part of the public administration towards fishers determined to trawl along the coast and even within the few scarce areas effectively protected from the ravages of industrial fishing.
Determined to put an end to the public authorities’ complacency towards poachers engaged in illegal fishing in the Mediterranean, BLOOM is today filing an access to information request in order to lift the veil on the controls carried out by the public authorities and on the sanctions taken by the administration against illegal fishing.
“PROTECTED” MARINE AREAS: A NETWORK OF HOLLOW SHELLS
In France, the various categories of so-called Marine “Protected” Areas in no way meet the international criteria of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
THE MANY LAYERS OF CALANQUES NATIONAL PARK
A no-take zone, a reinforced protection zone, a ‘marine heartland’, an adjacent maritime area, a three-mile coastal zone… more than seven protection regimes apply in the waters of the Parc national des Calanques.
→ Calanques National Park, Perimeter map, 2023. Available at:https://catalogue.parcnational.fr/data/pncal/decret_web.jpg
In France, trawling is prohibited within the three-nautical-mile coastal zone, except under exceptional circumstances.
With the creation of the Parc national des Calanques in April 20128 comes a series of restrictions on fishing activities:
- Strict ban on fishing in the no-take zones at sea and the reinforced protection zone
- A ban on bottom trawling in the marine heartland, except for professional trawlers that previously operated in the zone9. Of the five vessels holding such exceptional derogations, two trawlers are still in operation, including the one in question here.
 Le Marin, Un chalutier marseillais pris en flagrant délit de pêche en zone interdite, 5 December 2022
 France Nature Environnement (FNE) Bouches du Rhône et Paca, Ligue de protection des oiseaux (LPO), ASPAS.
 La Provence, Condamné pour braconnage, le patron de l’un des 2 derniers chalutiers de Marseille interdit de pêche, 3 June 2023
 The use of towed nets such as bottom trawling is prohibited throughout France along coasts less than three nautical miles away, in accordance with article D.922-16 of the French Rural and Maritime Fishing Code. See https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/codes/id/LEGISCTA000029979335/2015-01-01
 When Calanques National Park was created, five fishers who had been operating in the area for many years were granted an anteriority right to avoid endangering their activity, with a view to reconciling the various issues at stake on the site. Today, only two of them are still active, the second having also been arrested for poaching.
 Data from https://www.data.gouv.fr/fr/datasets/statistiques-de-controle-des-peches-1/ for the number of inspections, and from https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/fleet-europa/search_en for the number of fishing vessels operating in the Mediterranean.
 According to article L.946-4 of the French Rural and Maritime Fishing Code, the fines provided for in articles L.946-1 to L.946-3 are proportionate to the seriousness of the facts established, and take into account the value of the damage caused to fishery resources and the marine environment concerned.