France Should Reconsider Veto to Electric Pulse Fishing

The alternative is shrinking the entire trawler fleet.

Dutch trawler
Dutch fishing boat trawling for mussels in the North Sea, April 20, 2020 (Unsplash/Paul Einerhand)

The European Commission is advising member states to tap into EU innovation and rural development funds to compensate fishers who will lose out if bottom trawling is banned.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, the Lithuanian commissioner for oceans and fisheries, has proposed to phase out bottom trawling, also known as dragging, in 30 percent of EU waters.

The better policy would be to reverse a ban on electric pulse fishing, which allows fishers to catch sole and other flatfish without ploughing the seafloor.

Bottom trawling is disruptive

12 percent of European waters are currently marine-protected. The North Sea has the largest protected area, covering 27 percent. The Central and Eastern Mediterranean, or Ionian and Aegean Seas, have almost no protected waters. The Baltic Sea is in the middle with 16 percent.

Sinkevičius would raise the share to 30 percent EU-wide in order to give sensitive habitats a chance to recover and protect fish spawning and nursery areas.

Most countries allow fishing in protected waters provided it doesn’t harm the environment or wildlife. Bottom trawling does. Trawlers drag weighted nets over the seafloor in order to catch groundfish and shrimp. That also ensnares other species, like crabs and starfish. Trawling the bottom of the sea can strip up to 41 percent of invertebrate life from the seabed, which takes six years to recover. About a third of Europe’s fish are caught by bottom trawling.

Sinkevičius would declare 10 percent of European waters off-limits to fishing altogether, up from 1 percent.

Billions in EU money for fishers

Sinkevičius argues there is money in various EU funds to compensate trawlers:

  • The European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund contains €6.1 billion for the 2021-27 fiscal period. Its terms are so broad that virtually any subsidy for fishing qualifies.
  • The LIFE program (acronym from the French L’Instrument Financier pour l’Environnement) has a 2021-27 budget of €5.4 billion to subsidize climate- and environment-related innovations.
  • EU cohesion funds, which exist to finance economic and rural development in the poorest regions of the EU, contain another €392 billion.

EU won’t allow fishing innovation

Some of the money will be used to buy out fishers and redevelop fishing industries. Some may be used to stir innovation.

But the EU already has the innovation to replace trawlers. It just won’t allow it.

Electric pulse fishing uses lighter nets in combination with electric pulses that loosen the fish from the seabed, leaving other species far less affected.

The lighter trawl and lower drag resistance also reduce fuel consumption, making pulse fishing cheaper and less polluting.

Reducing fossil-fuel use is another EU objective. The bloc recently raised its ambition for renewable energy to 40 percent by 2030.

France cites animal welfare

The main opponent of electric pulse fishing is France, the largest fisher in the EU after Spain.

One of the few countries in Europe that still allows the atrocity of foie gras, France nevertheless cited concerns about animal welfare to ban electric pulse fishing in 2019. It convinced the rest of the EU to ban the technology as well.

By the time the European Court of Justice made the ban definitive in 2021, a third of Dutch trawlers had switched to electric pulse fishing. They had to switch back to dragging — if they could afford to switch back at all. Many had to write off hundreds of thousands of euros in investment. The suspicion in Dutch fishing towns is that the French banned the technology to shield their own, far less innovative, coastal fisheries from competition.

Dutch trawlers give up

The ban on pulse fishing was the second setback for Dutch trawlers in as many years. Brexit had closed off British waters to European fishing.

North Sea fishing grounds will be further reduced if more areas are declared marine-protected and others are set aside for wind farms. Energy companies prefer to build turbines in shallow waters. The deeper the water, the larger – and more expensive – the concrete or steel foundation of a wind turbine must be. But the same shallow waters are where trawlers catch flatfish and shrimp.

99 out of 384 Dutch trawlers quit in the last twenty years. Another 79 have applied to be bought out with €155 million in EU money.

This is not a victory for French fishing; it is a cautionary tale.

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