UK calls for ban on tuna driftnets in Europe

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The Independent Online
THE campaign for a total ban on driftnets in European Union waters reaches its climax tomorrow when the European Commission considers voting on a British proposal to end the method of fishing blamed for devastating tuna and swordfish stocks in the Mediterranean.

The nets are used by Italian and French fishermen to catchtuna. The fish is popular in Japan, and Japanese buying agents can be found in manyMediterranean ports. Numerous unwanted fish are also caught in the nets - colloquially known as "walls of death" - and thrown back dead into the sea.

At present only driftnets longer than 2,500 metres are illegal in EU waters.

Britain and its supporters face a last-minute countermove by the French government, which wants a total ban on driftnets delayed for up to six years.

Emma Bonino, the European Commissioner for Fisheries, acknowledges that the debate will be intense. "The decision to abolish certain fishing techniques will have unfavourable economic and social repercussions in the short- term for a number of fishing fleets," she said, but added that the commission envisaged measures to soften the blow, including paying compensation to fishermen and owners of vessels who cannot adapt to different fishing techniques.

Greenpeace's MV Greenpeace and a helicopter have been in the Mediterranean for the past few months in pursuit of the swordfish and tuna fishing fleets accused of overfishing. Xavier Pastor, executive director of Greenpeace- Spain, who is co-ordinator of the anti-driftnet campaign, said yesterday that he was doubtful that the latest measures would solve the problem.

On Wednesday night, he said, the campaigners had located the B. Colleoni, an Italian vessel, using more than 6km of illegal driftnets. This vessel had already been detained by the Spanish authorities on 18 May, when it was found fishing with a similar-sized net 40 miles off the Balearics, within Spain's special fisheries protection zone. Its nets were seized and it had to pay a pounds 20,000 deposit before it was allowed to sail again. Clearly, this had not deterred the fishermen.

Another Italian vessel, the Rosy, based at Alghero in northern Sardinia, is being held at Mahon port on Minorca. This vessel was fishing just six miles off the island's coast and was taken into port by a Spanish Navy ship after being spotted by a Fisheries Inspectorate helicopter.

Giuseppe de Negri, president of the Fishermen's Association in Alghero, from where the Rosy set sail several weeks ago, was keen to avoid controversy over the detention, and said that very few of the local boats used driftnets. "Most of the driftnetters come from Sicily," he claimed, adding that most local fishermen caught lobster to make a living.

Enrico Perrone, who handles permits granted to the fishing fleet of Catania in Sicily, claims that new EU measures would not greatly affect the Sicilian fleet. He said: "Most boats here do not use the driftnets which the EU wants to phase out. In Catania we use nets called ferretara, which have an 18cm mesh, much smaller than the usual 40cm of the driftnet mesh."

Only half a dozen of the 30 local driftnetters, according to Mr Perrone, will be affected by Monday's vote.

Italy attempted to get the current EU ban on driftnets more than 2,500 metres long lifted last year, but abandoned the proposal under pressure from the United States. The victory that approval of the British proposal tomorrow would represent for campaigners will be tarnished by strong fears that loopholes will soon be found, along the lines of the ferretara or by ships changing register and fishing under Tunisian or Egyptian flags, unaffected by EU regulations.

Swordfish and tuna fishing is big business for Italian and French driftnetters. It has been reported from Minorca that up to pounds 4,000 is paid for a large bluefin tuna, a fish which comes to spawn between this island and France from May to August.

The buyers are Japanese agents stationed at ports around this coast, who have the fish flown to Tokyo in individually refrigerated cases where they are sold within 48 hours. This lucrative market has sparked recent moves to enlarge the French driftnet fleet in the Mediterranean.

The main concern of the majority of the members of the European Commission is that driftnets are not selective. Greenpeace data claims that as many as 10,000 cetaceans and 15,000 sharks are killed each year by the nets deployed by the 740 Italian and 50 French driftnetters working in the Mediterranean.

Swordfish make up just one-fifth of the fish caught in Italian driftnets, which are aimed at this species. The rest are not considered commercial and are tipped back overboard. The term "walls of death" comes from the vast number of unwanted catches made in these nets.

Mrs Bonino explained that the EU would support the conversion of fishing vessels to techniques for catching the same species as at present, but which are more reliable and selective, although funding for this, she added, would have to come from member states' existing structural funds.

Spanish Fisheries Inspectorate sources on Friday received the news of the forthcoming vote with cries of "At long last!". The Inspectorate has chartered a plane to carry out inspection work from next week, taking over from the Greenpeace helicopter which had operated successfully in recent weeks but has been grounded for technical reasons.

Some nations, at least, look forward to the prospect of a total ban, although it remains to be seen who can make it effective and how.