A Dutch pulse trawler in the North Sea

The Netherlands can only blame themselves for the ban on electric fishing

On Tuesday 27 March 2018, Dutch investigative journalist Thomas Spekschoor published a report at NOS (Netherlands Broadcasting Foundation) on the lack of research associated to electric fishing and the reckless strategy of the Dutch government. Here, we provide a translation of his report.

The Netherlands have delayed research on electric fishing for years. With the promise that vessels would only be used for scientific research, the Dutch government has arranged for dozens of extra licenses to be issued from 2010 onwards. Research by the NOS (Netherlands Broadcasting Foundation) shows that it was just a trick to obtain permits and use them to fish commercially: in reality, many of the vessels fished for years without a scientist ever coming on board.

Eventually the Netherlands harmed themselves with this strategy. In January, the European Parliament voted for a full ban on electric fishing, much to the anger of Dutch fishers and government. Minister in charge of fisheries Carola Schouten pointed out that scientific research on electric fishing has yet to be completed and that the vote came too early. However, that research could have already been finished if only the Netherlands had started on time.

If we had received in 2010 the funds that we now have for research and development, we would now be much further down the road“, said Adriaan Rijnsdorp, the Dutch leading scientist on electric fishing.

In hindsight, the research should have started sooner“, acknowledged Pim Visser, director of the fishing organization VisNed. “Then we could have been looking forward, and not repairing things like we are now.”

Only since 1 January 2017 have all Dutch electric fishing vessels had a Wageningen Marine Research computer on board to collect relevant scientific data. That is seven years after applying for the additional exemptions for scientific research.

Up until then, there were only studies on individual ships, but not one large comprehensive survey. Scientists were only able to study the limited data that all vessels, practicing electric fishing or not, had to transmit to the European Commission.

The Dutch hunt for extra licenses started in 2010. At that time, the Dutch fishing sector was divided into two camps: one with the 22 vessels that were getting plenty of fish with their new electric fishing technique, which also saved a lot of fuel, and one with all other fishers, who had to deal with the more old-fashioned beam trawling. Companies were close to bankruptcy due to high fuel prices and low fish prices. They all begged for electric fishing exemptions.

Dutch shortcuts

Officially, the EU did not allow this. Fishing with electricity was prohibited because it was not yet clear what the effects of the technique were. However, each country was allowed to grant exemptions to 5% of its fleet to experiment with electric current, which for the Netherlands, amounted to 22 vessels. But State Secretary Bleker found a shortcut. According to an EU rule, he could supposedly grant twenty additional licenses to practice electric fishing ‘exclusively for scientific research’. The European Commission apparently agreed to this in writing but although NOS has requested the letter in which it is confirmed, it has not seen it yet: the letter is confidential, according to the ministry.

State Secretary Dijksma repeated Bleker’s trick in 2014 by requesting another 42 additional exemptions. This time, too, the Netherlands promised extensive scientific research. Dijksma: “an extensive monitoring and research program is important in getting the electric fishing gear recognized with the support of other member states.” 

But although the Netherlands were fast when it came to providing exemptions, their collection of scientific data was slow. They have never had any intention of carrying out scientific research on all of those vessels. First, they were helping their fishers not to go bankrupt, scientific research came only second. According to Rijnsdorp: “as researchers, we had to adjust our research to the number of vessels that were at sea anyway“. There was no scientific logic in using 84 vessels: “I would never have asked for 84 vessels. For most scientific endeavors, you do not need as many as that“. This statement was confirmed by other Dutch and foreign electric fishing scientists.

NOS went through all public electric fishing surveys conducted between 2010 and 2017.  Until 2016, the Netherlands only used a limited number of vessels for scientific research, despite the fact that a large proportion of their permits were precisely awarded for that reason.

Many permits, few research vessels

Year Number of exemptions
Vessels involved in research
2010 22 4
2011 42 9
2012 42 32
2013 42 14
2014 42 7
2015 84 17
2016 84 8
2017 84 84

Research has been carried out since 2010 on, for example, by-catch and the marks that many fish show off the Belgian coast. It was never the case that all electric fishing vessels were used for research, which was mainly aiming to eliminate specific concerns about electric fishing abroad.

This method has not worked, because those who criticize electric fishing are not so easily convinced. They fear that electric fishing will turn the sea into a graveyard. VisNed’s director Pim Visser: “every new report also generates five new questions from them, and it doesn’t stop“.

There is a solution for this, but it costs more money. Adriaan Rijnsdorp: “In order to answer every question, you have to do a lot of fundamental research: but politicians wanted quick answers to very practical questions that arose, and so it was difficult to convince them to invest heavily in fundamental research“.

It is only when the international criticism of Dutch electric fishers increased in 2015 that the money for fundamental research was finally delivered. The cheap research that had been done up until then was not enough to convince everyone. Cheap now seems to be expensive, as from 2017 onward, all electric fishing vessels must be involved in research.

2018: The Netherlands must account

Research started too late. It is now admitted. “We didn’t think that the European Parliament would take a decision on electric fishing until 2019“, sighed Adriaan Rijnsdorp two months after the vote in the European Parliament. “By then our research would have been finished“.

The night before that vote in January, Rijnsdorp sat in Parliament in front of MEPs. They asked all kinds of critical questions and Rijnsdorp could not answer all of them, because the large-scale research had still not been completed. The next day MEPs voted for a total ban on electric fishing.

Minister Schouten used the unfinished research as an argument for continuing electric fishing. “Let’s conduct this discussion on the basis of facts“, she said in January at a cabinet meeting. “The research is still ongoing and we really want the final decision on whether or not to continue with electric fishing to be based on the results of the research“.

But that research could have already been finished if the Netherlands had immediately put their scientists at work in 2010 or in the first following years. It will take four years to complete the research. If they had started back in 2014, the results would have published by now.

Now the Netherlands feel the consequences of their own mistakes. “If we had started two or three years earlier, we would have provided clear answers to the questions, and we would have been much stronger in front of the European Parliament“, said Rijnsdorp.

The question now is whether or not the Netherlands will still be given the opportunity to complete the large-scale electric fishing research. A large majority in the European Parliament wants a full ban on electric fishing. The fact that research has yet to be completed makes little difference.

The Netherlands do with electric fishing what Japan does with whaling” said Green MEP Yannick Jadot, one of the driving forces behind the proposed ban on electric fishing. “Under the guise of science, 84 electric fishing licenses have been issued to fish commercially, the majority of which have not produced any scientific results. The only decision that Europe can take is to revoke those permits, which are illegal“.

NOS spoke with several international electric fishing scientists and they agree on one thing: electric fishing will prove more sustainable than beam trawling. It is their opinion that it is understandable that the Netherlands promoted electric fishing, but the government has given exemptions to too many fishers, too quickly. There was no scientific justification behind it and it was a politically clumsy move.

Error of estimation

Rijnsdorp: “We simply did not realize how many concerns others had about the use of electricity, because to us, it was very clear what the benefits were“.

It is an expensive error of estimation. The Commission, the Council and the European Parliament will meet in Brussels in the coming months to discuss the future of electric fishing. The Netherlands cannot do much more than damage control after the vote in the European Parliament and the earlier negative decision by the Council of Fisheries Ministers. The chance that Dutch electric fishers will have to surrender their permits is high. The scientific argument does not work anymore in Brussels.

Minister Schouten’s response

Minister Schouten points out that a lot of research has been carried out in recent years and that fundamental research has also started. “Maybe there was some gain to be had. It could have gone a bit faster, but at the same time we are really working on this. However, I want to emphasize that we have promised research and that is what we are working towards now“.

To her, the question is whether or not the European Parliament could have been convinced with this kind of research. “French MEPs were allowed to ask overwhelming questions, but regarding the researchers, who very much wanted to answer them, I did not have the impression that they were being listened to at all“.

Share :