'Walls of death' lead to new tuna war: Tourists suffer as Spanish fishing fleet sets up blockade against 'illegal' French fishing methods

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The Independent Online
SPANISH fishermen who want to bring an end to the 'illegal' fishing practices of the French tuna fleet blockaded ports along their country's northern coast yesterday in a dramatic escalation of the 'tuna war'. The blockade of the port of Santander in Spain forced Brittany Ferries' Val de Loire, with 1,740 passengers and more than 500 cars on board, to turn round for a 20-hour voyage to Roscoff in northern France.

Some 1,500 tired and angry travellers were stuck at Santander awaiting their passage on the same ship to Plymouth.

Some 25 Spanish boats in international waters blocked the entrance to the Bidasso estuary, and the French port of Hendaye, by stringing steel hawsers between each other. A French naval patrol vessel was looking on yesterday, but there were no reports of incidents.

'We will keep closing harbours until a total ban on drift-net fishing is implemented,' a representative of the Spanish fleet said. 'We do not trust the European authorities anymore.'

At around 400 boats, the Spanish tuna fleet is much larger than the French fleet of between 40 and 60 and the amount of tuna caught by Spain (some 20,000 tonnes) compared with France (4,000 tonnes declared) is far greater. The Spanish fishermen, supported by Greenpeace, say that their methods of using rods, long lines and live bait to catch albacore tuna are environmentally appropriate because they fish selectively. The French fleet, which has only been in business since the late Eighties, uses drift nets which have been banned by the United Nations. The European Union, which voted for the UN moratorium, none the less approves of drift nets, if they are no longer than 1,500 yards.

Drift nets, also known as 'walls of death', are left hanging in the water along the migratory routes of the tuna which are trapped by their gills. In the Mediterranean, hundreds of Italian boats illegally use nets to catch swordfish. Some Spanish boats use drift nets to fish illegally in the Straits of Gibraltar.

Overfishing as a result of the high technology now at the disposal of fishing fleets has revolutionised fishing and put huge pressure on stocks. The skills required of a skipper to locate and catch fish have been supplanted by satellite imagery (showing the temperature of currents and the location of schools of fish). Directional sonar lets skippers find shoals of fish with pinpoint accuracy.

Cheap nylon monofilament, which is invisible to fish, can be set (illegally) up to 40 miles and with refrigeration and mother ships, hundreds of tonnes of fish can be frozen before the fleet returns to port. The 'hi-tech fishing' allows vessels to scoop up entire schools of fish indiscriminately, with no account for undersize fish or other species.

The killing of dolphins during tuna fishing has become a highly emotive issue in the United States. Such was the public outcry over the practice that the US banned the imports of tuna from countries that use these methods.

The new tuna war between France and Spain has the potential to turn violent and has already seen the capture of a French drift netter, the Gabrielle, by Spanish fishermen. They claim to have found an illegal 3-mile-long drift net in the ship's hold.

The European Commission has long winked at the practices of French fishermen, knowing that without inspectors on board ships, it is next to impossible to police the 1,500-yard rule for drift nets. Last week the Commission acquired new powers to have independent inspectors vet both Spanish and French boats, but that has not satisfied the angry Spanish fishermen.

The Commission, which is embarrassed by the squabble between France and Spain, said yesterday that what was needed was a new scientific study on the use of drift- net fishing methods by France, Italy, Spain, Britain, Ireland and Denmark.

The Fisheries Commissioner, Yannis Paleokrassas, also stressed that drift nets must be banned. However, that would take a decision of EU fisheries ministers who do not meet until 28 September.

(Photographs and graphic omitted)