EU fishing industry battles with conservationists over bottom trawling | Environment

An EU action plan to tackle bottom-of-the-ocean trawling practices is set to spark a row between conservationists and a new industry alliance that says it fights for culture and ecology. European identity.

About 32% of Europe’s fish are caught by industrial fishing vessels that rake the seabed with huge nets in a process called bottom trawling. Studies indicate that these nets can suck up to 41% of all invertebrate life from the seafloor and cause serious damage to marine environments such as cold-water coral reefs and seagrass beds.

Bottom trawling is already banned by the EU at depths over 800 meters, but the European Commission has promised to implement any restrictions it deems necessary to further limit this practice, which it has called a ‘”most damaging activity for the seabed”. A delayed set 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 official 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 brings together fishermen’s associations from 14 countries.

The group says bottom trawling is “very sustainable” because of certification schemes such as that run by the Marine Stewardship Council and because vessels must already comply with environmental constraints imposed by the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. EU.

According to the EBFA, new trawling edges could create a supply shortage with the potential to deprive prices of many common fish species such as sole, turbot, plaice, halibut and prawns from European menus.

“We don’t want to see an industry taking care of the rich,” said Ivan López, president of EBFA, who runs a trawling company in Spain. “It wouldn’t be fair if fish became a luxury item.” Seafood is a “culture and identity” issue in Spain, he added.

A shrimp trawl does its job…but catches many creatures besides shrimp. Photography: Minden Pictures/Alamy

Others criticize these arguments. While trawling restrictions could push up prices for a while, said Joachim Claudet, a senior researcher at France’s Center National de la Recherche Scientifique, “ecosystems would recover quite quickly if we stopped trawling, and that would mean that ‘there would be more fish to be caught with more sustainable means’. practices.”

Rebecca Hubbard, program director of campaign group Our Fish, described the industry’s new offensive as “a desperate greenwashing initiative in defense of the indefensible”.

The issue is escalating into a battle, said Nicolas Fournier, campaign manager for conservation group Oceana, which advocates for practices such as longline fishing and the consumption of more locally caught and less endangered species. “If we’re going to take this opportunity to tackle bottom trawling, it’s basically now or never,” he said.

Brussels has pledged to establish protected areas for at least 30% of European seas, but under EU law MPAs have specific objectives, such as the protection of seabirds, crustaceans or other marine features.

Their effectiveness, however, is disputed. Fournier said their benefits often exist primarily on paper and that shipping, dredging, oil and gas drilling, aquaculture, port developments and wind farms can still be permitted in MPAs.

A tenth of European waters have marine protected status, but more than 2.5 million hours of bottom trawling took place there in 2020, according to Oceana research. “In some areas bottom trawling is prohibited to protect the seabed, but many others [MPAs] focus on other characteristics and therefore do not regulate bottom trawling,” said an EU official, who did not wish to be named.

“It’s nonsense that ‘protected’ areas can allow trawling, which is one of the most damaging human activities at sea,” Claudet said.

EBFA cites studies by University of Washington academic Ray Hillborn to support its case for allowing bottom trawling in MPAs on a case-by-case basis – in areas where seabirds are protected but not the seabed, for example.

However, “if seabirds eat fish or seafloor organisms, you can’t treat them in isolation from the rest of their ecosystem,” said Professor Clare Bradshaw of Stockholm University.

A spokesman for the European Commission said he had to weigh any new measure against the economic effects it could have on an industrial sector that accounts for a quarter of the EU fishing fleet. “We are not going to aim for a blanket approach by banning all gear in all waters,” the official said. “Instead, we will look at how best to protect the seabed and work based on science to see how to balance decisions.”

Some research also suggests that beyond biodiversity loss, sediment disturbance from bottom trawling could cause more CO2 releases than the entire global aircraft fleet.

All of this is creating new uncertainty for an EU fishing sector that critics say has been used to punching above its weight in Brussels.

Fishermen, like farmers, lobby heavily, but many believe they have lost in the debates over catch limits and Brexit, and may now face new restrictions. “We think the green deal is pushing the peach too much,” Lopez said. “We think the argument is too biased in one direction on the [environmental] problem”, he added, “and it is not ours”.

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