Who could have predicted the end of trawling?

Who could have predicted that trawling’s Achilles heel was its structural dependence on oil?

Who could have predicted that trawling was doomed to disappear as soon as rising fuel prices made it unprofitable?

Who could have predicted that the war in Ukraine would be prolonged, causing oil prices on world markets to continue to rise? 

Who could have predicted that governments would not be able to subsidize diesel purchases indefinitely?

As the ‘Assises de la pêche’ fisheries conference opens in Nice, the fishing industry is in turmoil. On 14 September, in an interview with the weekly newspaper Le Marin, the French Secretary of State for the Sea, Hervé Berville, announced that the diesel subsidies granted to the sector to compensate for rising fuel prices would end on 15 October.

The reaction from the fishing industry has been swift[1]. Offshore fishing vessels, particularly trawlers, are once again first to denounce the impasse in which they find themselves and are demanding more and more public money to keep afloat a model that has long been doomed to failure, but one which no one has ever had the courage to tackle head-on. A model that has destroyed resources – overfishing is considered by IPBES experts to be the main factor in the destruction of marine ecosystems over the last fifty years – it has destroyed direct jobs – which have decreased by 4 or 5 times in number since the 1970s[2] – and uses techniques that consume a lot of diesel and therefore emit CO2, at a time when we urgently need to move away from fossil fuels.

And yet, as early as 2006, The Poseidon Report[3] warned of the lack of profitability induced by steadily rising fuel prices and the risks to the sector’s viability:

“As a result, a large part of the sector is currently out of business, a situation exacerbated by the ever-increasing cost of fuel. The very short and medium-term viability of fishing businesses is therefore under threat (p. 52).

Rising fuel costs (particularly for the high-seas fishing fleet) add to other existing pressures, such as the need to reduce the environmental impact of fishing, or the need for increasingly selective gear. This must be seen as a long-term trend (p. 127).”

This observation was reiterated two years later by Senator Marcel-Pierre Cléach in his report entitled Marée amère (‘Bitter Tide’)[4]. The public authorities therefore bear a very large share of the responsibility for the current situation, given people have been aware of it for a long time. Instead of facing up to the warning signs of ecological, economic and social disarray and taking the measures needed to bring about a profound transformation of the sector, political decision-makers have systematically bowed to industrial lobbies and shamefully turned a blind eye. Since the 1990s, successive governments have consistently opted for short-term fixes, with subsidies aimed primarily at calming the situation in ports, rather than providing concrete long-term solutions[5].

To govern is to foresee, and yet, for decades, the status quo has prevailed in every political decision. The expense is also so much the worse for the taxpayers who pay the price for this recklessness. Today, the situation is best summed up by the fishers themselves. “We passed the threshold a long time ago,” they say,“even with the 20-cents aid, the soaring price of diesel has got us gripped by the throat like nothing I’ve seen for 40 years”[6]. Despite exemptions from TIPCE (Taxe Intérieure de Consommation sur les Produits de l’Énergie, English: Internal Consumption Tax on Energy Products) and Value Added Tax (VAT) on fuel, and additional aid introduced in the context of rising diesel prices since March 2022, offshore fishing vessels are not profitable. This is hardly surprising when you consider that an 18-24-meter trawler consumes an average of 34,000 liters of diesel per month, almost four times more than a driftnetter or a pot vessel of equivalent size.

Should they fail to obtain the renewal of diesel subsidies, trawler representatives are now demanding that a fleet exit plan be put in place to enable fishers to “depart with dignity”[7]. So be it. A pure product of post-war consumerist ideology, this model is on its last legs and doomed to disappear, its proponents having refused to embark on the path of ecological, economic and social transition. In the words of fisheries scientist Didier Gascuel, “‘detrawling’ is underway. It was always inevitable“[8].

It is urgent – if not already too late – to put an end to this immense waste of natural and financial resources, and to redirect public subsidies towards low-CO2 emitting methods that respect marine ecosystems and those who depend on them.


Over the past three years, Europe’s fishing industry has experienced a succession of unprecedented crises, highlighting the structural fragility of the model on which it is based, and underscoring the urgent need for far-reaching change.

After the COVID pandemic, which forced many fishers to remain docked[1], and the United Kingdom’s official exit from the European Union in January 2021, which restricted European vessels’ access to British waters and whose agreement provides for a gradual reduction in quotas of up to 25% by 2026[2], fisheries are now facing rising fuel prices caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In March 2022, the European Commission adopted a crisis framework scheme that relaxes EU state aid rules so that governments can financially support companies whose business is impacted by the war in Ukraine[3]. Revised three times[4], this emergency measure authorizes fishing companies to receive public aid up to a maximum of 300,000 euros, in the form of direct subsidies, tax and payment benefits, repayable advances, guarantees, loans and equity capital[5]. These measures are in addition to the 30,000 euros of “de minimis” aid normally available to fishing businesses over a three-year period[6].

A document published by the French State Secretary to the Sea specifies that the following are excluded from the calculation of the upper limits: national emergency aid put in place in the context of COVID and Brexit, subsidies paid under the EMFF (European Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Fund), aid under the ‘Plan de relance pêche et aquaculture’ (Fisheries and Aquaculture Recovery Plan) and private funding provided by France Filière Pêche[7].


Since March 2022, French fishing companies have thus benefited from general discounts when refueling and specific aid for the sector which, added together, represent the following amounts:

  • From 17 March to 30 September 2022: 35 cents per liter of diesel purchased and paid for.
  • From 1 October to 15 November 2022: 25 cents per liter of diesel purchased and paid for.
  • From 16 November 2022 to 15 February 2023: 25 cents per liter of diesel purchased and paid for.
  • From 16 February to 15 October 2023: 20 cents per liter of diesel purchased and paid for.

According to the French Secretary of State for the Sea, Hervé Berville, 75 million euros have already been spent to soften the fuel costs of French fishing fleets[8]. The most fuel-hungry fleet segments very quickly reached the maximum authorized thresholds in the aid ceilings provided for in the regulatory framework and asked the government to defend the renewal of the European emergency aid framework[9].

In addition to these aid mechanisms, which have been in place since March 2022, the fishing industry is also exempt from VAT and TICPE. EU rules on the taxation of energy products used as motor fuel, heating fuel and electricity are set out in the European Energy Taxation Directive (ETD), which was implemented in 2003 in order to standardize and impose “minimum rates of excise duty for the taxation of energy products”. In particular, this directive provides for an exemption regime for a number of economic sectors, including aviation, shipping and fishing, unlike other sectors such as agriculture.

Fishers therefore already enjoy a significant tax advantage since they save nearly 154 million euros[10] each year compared with a scenario in which they would not be exempt and would be subject to the same tax rate as that applicable to general fuel use. This fuel tax exemption encourages excessive fossil fuel consumption by fishing fleets, and is totally out of step with the European Green Deal objectives of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 and achieving neutrality by 2050. In light of this, on 14 July 2021, the European Commission presented a proposal to revise this directive, which includes a new structure for taxation rates based on energy content and environmental performance, the expansion of products subject to taxation and the abolition of the mandatory fuel tax exemption for the fishing sector, in order to promote the sector’s energy transition.


Trawlers are the main beneficiaries of these fuel price subsidies, as they consume a vast amount of fuel. An 18-24 meter trawler consumes an average of 34,000 liters of diesel per month, almost four times more than a gillnetter or potter of equivalent size. In terms of energy efficiency – defined as the ratio between the volume of fuel used and the volume of fish caught – trawlers are also at the bottom of the league table: to catch one tonne of fish, an 18-24 meter trawler consumes an average of 1,350 liters of fuel, i.e. over 2.5 times more than a vessel of the same size using passive gear with a low impact on the marine environment. This inefficiency is due to the considerable energy required to deploy and tow the nets that scrape the seabed. Because of this gargantuan need for fuel, trawlers are the main beneficiaries of TICPE[11]. In metropolitan France alone, these vessels saved nearly €98 million in 2019, far ahead of the French driftnetters (€14 million), trolling boats (€6 million), and potters (€5 million).

In addition to the direct greenhouse gas emissions associated with fossil fuel consumption, by scraping the bottom of the seabed, trawling also contributes to the resuspension in the water column of large quantities of carbon contained in marine sediments. The fate of this carbon is still very uncertain, although some studies suggest that this resuspension could be associated with huge greenhouse gas emissions, comparable to those produced by the aviation sector[12]. In addition to destroying the seabed, bottom trawling is associated with extremely high levels of by-catch – on average 22% of catches, but rising to almost 90% in some fisheries[13]– which represents an incalculable number of animals sacrificed for nothing.

Supporting this consumerist fishing model is therefore both absurd and deadly, and ending State subsidies on fuel prices is a necessary condition to enable the ecological, economic and social transition of the sector by redirecting public funds towards low-impact, low-carbon methods that provide more jobs.


[1] https://www.bloomassociation.org/en/analysis-of-covid-fisheries-subsidies-the-devastating-favouritism-of-the-french-government/

[2] BLOOM article available in French: https://bloomassociation.org/accord-sur-le-brexit-quels-enjeux-pour-les-pecheurs-europeens/

[3] https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52022XC1109(01)

[4] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_23_1563

[5] Paragraph 56 of Article 2.1 of the 2022/C 426/01 Communication from the European Commission

[6] https://www.essonne.gouv.fr/Actions-de-l-Etat/Agriculture-et-foret/Agriculture/Aides-de-Minimis/Qu-est-ce-qu-une-aide-de-minimis

[7] https://mer.gouv.fr/sites/default/files/2023-06/FAQ%20MàJ_06%20JUIN%202023.pdf

[8] https://lemarin.ouest-france.fr/secteurs-activites/peche/herve-berville-confirme-la-fin-de-laide-de-letat-au-carburant-peche-le-15-octobre-48744

[9] https://lemarin.ouest-france.fr/secteurs-activites/peche/le-dispositif-daides-au-carburant-peche-se-heurte-au-plafond-europeen-46589

[10] Estimate for 2019 based on CSTEP (Le Comité scientifique, technique et économique de la pêche, English: The Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries) consumption data (https://stecf.jrc.ec.europa.eu/dd/fleet) and fuel prices from the Weekly Oil Bulletin (https://energy.ec.europa.eu/data-and-analysis/weekly-oil-bulletin_en). These estimates do not take into account distant fleets operating outside EU waters.

[11] In France, the TICPE (Taxe intérieure de consommation sur les produits énergétiques, English: Internal consumption tax on energy products) amounts to €0.6091/L. The amount of this tax varies from one Member State to another, but must not be lower than the minimum excise duty rates laid down in the Energy Taxation Directive. The TICPE accounts for a significant proportion (around 40%) of the price of petrol and diesel at the pump.

[12] Sala et al. (2021). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03371-z

[13] https://www.fao.org/3/CA2905EN/ca2905en.pdf

[1] https://lemarin.ouest-france.fr/secteurs-activites/peche/le-comite-national-des-peches-nentend-pas-baisser-les-bras-48806

[2] Gascuel Didier, La Pêchécologie. Manifeste pour une pêche vraiment durable, Paris, Éditions Quae, 2023, p.7.

[3] Pujol Jean-Luc, Le Lann Gilbert, Banel Eric, Une ambition maritime pour la France. Rapport du Groupe Poséidon, Paris, December 2006, p.52. Available here: https://medias.vie-publique.fr/data_storage_s3/rapport/pdf/064000881.pdf. Last consulted: 21 September 2023.

[4] Cléach Marcel-Pierre, Marée amère : pour une gestion durable de la pêche, Rapport n°132, Paris, Sénat, 2008. Available here: https://www.senat.fr/rap/r08-132/r08-132.html. Last consulted: 20 September 2023

[5] Mesnil Benoît, “Public-aided crises in the French fishing sector”, Ocean & Coastal Management, 51 (10), September 2008, pp. 689-700.

[6] French media coverage: https://www.francebleu.fr/infos/agriculture-peche/les-armements-de-chalutiers-bretons-alertent-le-gasoil-trop-cher-risque-de-les-faire-disparaitre-8922129

[7] Ibid.

[8] https://twitter.com/DidierGascuel/status/1703009368537452884

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