EU hunts 'pirate' fishing fleet allowed to sail by Germany

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The Independent Online

A hunt has begun in the Baltic for a fleet of deep-sea "pirate" trawlers after Germany admitted that it had allowed five of the vessels to sail from the port of Rostock, despite their being blacklisted by the European Union for engaging in illegal and unreported fishing.

One of the Russian-crewed ships was traced to the Polish port of Swinoujscie but authorities in Sweden, Denmark and Germany were trying to establish the whereabouts of the other four pirate vessels which were reported to be at sea.

Despite protests by Greenpeace, the five ships, recently re-registered under Georgian flags, were given permission to leave their winter berths in Rostock and head out to sea on Monday. Greenpeace said the four ships had last been seen near the Danish Baltic island of Bornholm.

"We think the ships were heading for Poland," a spokesman for Germany's Fisheries Ministry said yesterday. "In future, we intend to ensure that these vessels are not given permission to enter German harbours."

Andrea Cederquist, of Greenpeace Germany, said: "The fact that the German government allows pirate vessels to set sail is incredible. Knowing these ships are leaving port without making sure they will keep to fishery agreements is totally unacceptable."

The five ships, all deep-sea trawlers, were initially Russian registered, but were forced to switch to the flags of Belize, Dominica and, later, Georgia, after protests over their involvement in pirate fishing. The vessels, which three months ago changed their names to Eva, Junita, Rosita, Isabella and Carmen to avoid immediate identification, were blacklisted by the EU last year for repeated breaches of regulations governing fishing in the north Atlantic.

The ships are known to have contributed to the collapse of redfish stocks in the north Atlantic and are widely suspected of engaging in bottom trawling, which causes large-scale destruction of deep-sea marine life. Iceland recently became the first European country to demand that fish retailers take action to stem the growth of pirate trawling by refusing to sell fish caught by such methods. Pirate fishing accounts for 20 per cent of world trawling catches each year.

Greenpeace said the pirate vessels were under charter from a Panamanian-registered company named Trespan, which has offices in the Swedish port of Malmo. The organisation said it feared that if given the assistance they required in European ports, the pirate trawlers were expected to make for the rich but largely unpoliced fishing grounds off west Africa or perhaps the Pacific.

The presence of pirate fishing vessels in Rostock was clearly an embarrassment to the German government. But a Fisheries Ministry spokesman said that under maritime law the authorities had no power to stop the vessels leaving harbour.

Greenpeace countered: "The ships had links with an East German firm in the Communist era. It seems to have been a buddies relationship and the authorities appear to have turned a blind eye."