Pelagic driftnets: a Mediterranean metastasis

This article was published in Italian on 16 June 2011 on the website of “Il Fatto Quotidiano”

It would be difficult to find a better example than the swordfish fishery in Italy for exemplifying what NOT to do as far as management of the marine environment and its resources are concerned.  In the old days swordfish was mostly caught by harpoon, the most selective fishing method there is.  The problems started in the ‘80s, when pelagic driftnets dozens of miles long, also known with the name of “walls of death”, came into vogue.

Photograph by OCEANA/Juan Cuetos (2006)

Driftnets are too efficient, and end up emptying the seas; at the same time, they are quite unselective: adult swordfish, the target of the fishery, make up only one fifth of the catch and everything else that gets caught end up discarded, dead or dying: undersized swordfish, sharks, manta rays, sunfish and other large pelagic fish, turtles, seabirds, dolphins and even the great whales. Driftnets deployed in the ’90s by over 700 Italian vessels, with an overall net length probably exceeding 10,000 km, have devastated the Mediterranean population of sperm whales, which were once common but are now listed as endangered in the Red List of threatened species. In addition, driftnets and have been the cause of significant mortality of striped dolphins, common dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, Cuvier’s beaked whales, pilot whales; in total, many thousands of individuals every year.  Dying in a driftnet, for these highly social and intelligent mammals, is a slow death entailing horrible and useless suffering, with the weight of the net impeding their surfacing to breathe, and with the net’s mesh sinking into raw wounds.

In view of the pelagic driftnets’ destructive potential, the United Nations General Assembly decreed in 1989, and reiterated in 1991, a global moratorium starting from 1992. The European Union followed suit imposing on its fleets a maximum net length of 2.5 km per boat in 1992, and the total ban from 1 January 2002. Quite typically, Italy tried hard to disregard international and European rules, like, at the expense of the taxpayer as well as of the health of the sea. Quite tellingly, the initial approach of the Italian government – when Adriana Poli Bortone, then the minister of agricultural resources, declared that she would ask the Commission for a derogation to allow the nets a maximum length of 9 km, and went to the extreme of inviting the coast guard “not to fine fishermen caught in illegal situations “ – did not change much in the decades to follow, in spite of damning evidence of the destructiveness of pelagic driftnets. And it is a fact that the only European country which continues to turn a blind eye when it comes to pelagic driftnet is Italy.

In anticipation of the entry into force of the total ban of driftnetting in European waters in 2002, the European Commission allocated €200 million for the conversion of the Italian vessels. This sounds like a lot of money but in reality it is not that much considering that the market value of swordfish in Italy is thought to be amounting to €4billion/year, legal and illegal catches combined. No wonder that so many fishermen chose not to accept the offer, preferring to continue operating illegally. Worse still, several others pocketed the money for the conversion and then continued – and still continue – to fish, undeterred and unopposed. The reaction of the state in the face of such blatant lawlessness was patchy: some intervention occurred here and there (3000 km of net were confiscated in 2006), although in most places lack interest, and in some cases even connivance, were the rule. In summary, thanks to the lack of transparency in the controls, or of their absence, it can be said that public money was used in Italy to a large extent to support illegal fishing.

In 2009 the European Court of Justice sent a first warning condemning Italy for failing to comply with European law, but without imposing financial penalties. Since there was no appreciable improvement, however, we can now expect a less benevolent treatment. A survey conducted recently in Sicily and Ponza by undercover inspectors of the European Commission, who noticed the persisting tolerance for flagrant illegality by the enforcement authorities, is likely to herald the opening by the Commission of an infringement procedure against Italy, with a subsequent stiff penalty, particularly painful in these times of crisis. We cannot blame the Italian taxpayers for their frustration for bearing the cost of such sloppy governance three times: the first for the conversion, the second for the fine, and finally – worse even – for seeing its seas remaining unprotected and further degraded.


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