The bad side of fishing

Fish worth £4m seized in EU crackdown on illegal fishing
Catches of octopus, squid, sole, shrimp and grouper, allegedly caught using child labour, impounded in Canary Islands
Robert Booth, Tuesday 19 April 2011 19.46 BST

The fish were seized after a fleet of canoes were spotted fishing around the Marcia 707, which is thought to have fed its catch to the Seta No 73.

European authorities have impounded 5m portions of fish destined for tables across the continent following allegations they were caught by illegal “pirate fishing” off west Africa using child labour.

The block on catches of octopus, squid, sole, shrimp and grouper landed in the Spanish port of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands represents the biggest action yet against the landing of illegally caught fish in the European Union following the introduction of new Brussels regulations last year that ban the practice.

The catches weighed a combined 1,100 tonnes and were worth around £4m. They were found on three refrigeration vessels owned and flagged to South Korea, Panama and China.

The boats were heading to processing plants from where their catch was to be distributed to fish counters in Spain and the rest of Europe in time for Holy Week, when fish sales typically double in Spain.

But the EU is pursuing allegations the catch was taken from waters protected for use by local fishermen and that some of the crew were 14-year-old Senegalese boys who had been at sea for three months. Local fishermen’s nets had allegedly been slashed by the foreign crews and one was allegedly assaulted with a metal bar when trying to retrieve his nets from entanglement with the industrial ship.

“Those vessels could be totally frozen out of trade with the EU,” Maria Damanaki, commissioner for maritime affairs and fisheries told the Guardian last night. “Illegal fishing is a nightmare. A lot of countries are losing money from it and while we talk a lot about aid to the third world, if we stop illegal fishing a lot of local citizens in poorer countries will benefit.”

She said illegal fishing damaged the sustainabilty of fish stocks and went hand-in-hand with criminality on a wider scale. It is estimated Sierra Leone loses up to $29m a year from pirate fishing. The new EU regulations aim “to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing”.

Spanish officials seized a 500-tonne cargo on the South Korean-owned Seta No 73, which European Commission investigators believe was packed with fish illegally caught off Sierra Leone. Spain has also blocked the catch from the Chinese-flagged Haifeng 823 and Chinese-owned but Panama-flagged Lian Run, which together had nearly 600 tonnes on board. They await explanations from the flag states about where the fish came from.

Processing plants in Gran Canaria have been becalmed by the sanctions and, with Easter looming, parts of the Spanish fish industry have complained the timing of the seizures is political.

The moves are the start of a crackdown on pirate fishing planned by Brussels which could see dozens of industrial fishing ships banned from landing their catch in Europe, the world’s biggest market for fish. In a planned “second strike” the EU is investigating the activities of 70 vessels from 11 non-EU countries and five member states which it suspects of fishing illegally, Damanaki said.

Alarm over Seta No 73’s activities was raised by a fisherman from Mania village in Sierra Leone, who reported the destruction of 250 yards of nets to the Environmental Justice Foundation, a British charity which runs a community surveillance programme in the area.

The fisherman had spotted a fleet of canoes fishing around a trawler, the South Korea-flagged Marcia 707, in an inshore exclusion zone reserved for “artisanal” fishermen. Buoys had been cut from many of the local fishermen’s nets, causing them to sink. Some of the canoe crews gave their age as 14 and said they had been picked up in Senegal before spending three months at sea, EJF reported.

When the local fishermen and EJF officials boarded the rusty trawler they saw two men who they believed to be South Korean sitting on the dirty and waterlogged deck. Up to 120 fishermen slept in a block of makeshift rooms on deck in cramped and very basic conditions with latrines which dumped directly over the side of the ship. The boat is thought to have fed its catch to the Seta No 73.

The crew of another vessel which provided part of the seized catch are alleged to have attacked a local fisherman who tried to retrieve his net when it became entangled with its fishing gear. He was allegedly hit on the head with a metal bar, opening a large gash, when he clashed with the crew in the exclusion zone.

“This investigation has exposed the highly organised theft of natural resources from some of the world’s poorest people – communities dependent on fish for food security and employment,” said Steve Trent, executive director of EJF. “Without flag states better regulating the activities of their vessels and coastal countries taking responsibility for monitoring their waters, this theft will continue.”

In the case of the Seta No 73, the European Commission is demanding answers from the Panamanian authorities who provided certificates the catches were legal and within international fishing agreements, which protect certain waters for local fishermen.

“The most likely outcome is that a large part of the catch will be illegal,” said Oliver Drewes, a spokesman for the commission. “The ultimate sanction is they could lose their licence to land fish at EU ports.” © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011