New alliance from 14 nations pledges to fight latest EU curbs on ‘indefensible’ practice of scooping up fish from the sea floor
An EU action plan to deal with fishing practices that trawl the ocean floor is set to trigger a row between conservationists and a new industry alliance that says it is fighting for Europe’s culture and identity.
About 32% of Europe’s fish are caught by industrial fishing vessels that rake the sea floor with enormous nets in a process called bottom trawling. Studies indicate that these nets can suck up to 41% of all invertebrate life from the sea floor and cause grave damage to marine environments such as cold water coral reefs and seagrass beds.
Bottom-trawling is already banned by the EU at depths of more than 800 metres but the European Commission has promised to implement whatever restrictions it deems necessary to further limit the practice, which it called “the most damaging activity to the seabed”. A delayed package of recommendations and announcements now expected in the spring could include a ban on bottom-trawling in marine protected areas (MPAs).
The fishing industry, however, is preparing to fight back with the formal launch of the European Bottom Fishing Alliance (EBFA) later this month. Formed in response to a petition signed by 150,000 people in December calling for an immediate ban on bottom trawling in MPAs, the alliance unites fishing associations across 14 countries.
The group argues that bottom trawling is “very sustainable” because of certification schemes such as the one run by the Marine Stewardship Council and because vessels already have to comply with environmental constraints imposed by the EU’s common fisheries policy.
Others are critical of these arguments. While trawling restrictions could raise prices for a period, said Joachim Claudet, a senior scientist at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, “ecosystems would recover quite quickly if we stopped trawling, and that would mean there would be more fish to catch with more sustainable practices.”
Rebecca Hubbard, programme director of the Our Fish campaign group, described the new industry offensive as “a desperate greenwashing initiative in defence of the indefensible”.
The issue is escalating into a battle, said Nicolas Fournier, campaign director of the Oceana conservation group, which argues for practices such as long-line fishing, and eating more locally-caught and less threatened species. “If we are to seize this opportunity to tackle bottom-trawling, it’s basically now or never,” he said.