Credit: Henry Hemming

Time’s up for electric pulse fishing – but baby fish left unprotected

Huge numbers of Europe’s baby fish are being caught in fishing nets with devastating consequences for future fish stocks.

New draft laws meant to tackle the problem were rubber-stamped by the European Parliament today but environmentalists say the text is “flawed” and won’t adequately protect marine life.

MEPs voted against both protections for baby fish and many thousands of iconic and protected species, including seabirds, turtles, and marine mammals such as dolphins or harbour porpoises.

In a statement, BirdLife Europe said the vote result could be a violation of the EU’s own nature protections that stipulate catching birds, dolphins, whales and turtles is illegal.

Over 200,000 seabirds and up to 130,000 turtles are accidentally caught and killed by fishing hooks and nets each year in European waters.

BirdLife Europe says that if adopted these draft rules would actually remove measures already in place to manage the impacts of fishing on dolphins and whales. The environmental NGO is calling for the European Commission to withdraw its marine proposal when it enters three-way talks on the issue with the Parliament’s marine negotiator, MEP Gabriel Mato, and representatives from EU governments.

Bruna Campos, BirdLife Europe’s EU Marine and Fisheries Policy Officer, said that no new rules are better than bad ones:

“Though some MEPs tried to salvage this sinking ship, it is far better to maintain the status quo – short-sighted though it is – than to proceed with mostly empty legislation. The European Commission should now withdraw this irreparable legislation.”

ClientEarth lawyer Flaminia Tacconi said:

“The rules as they stand are catastrophic for industry and consumers. They miss a major opportunity to improve fisheries management and cut the impact of fishing on EU seas. Smaller fish will not be properly protected because of this vote, which could affect fish stocks in areas like the North Sea. MEPs have dodged their duty to make fisheries sustainable and to protect our seas.”

Björn Stockhausen, Fisheries Policy Officer at Seas At Risk, said:

“The European Parliament has weakened the measures that have granted protection to the European seas for decades. These new diminished rules will undermine the health of marine ecosystems and the stability of fish stocks. This decision of a majority of European parliamentarians was undoubtedly hijacked by the vested interests of particular fishing fleets and regions.”

However, there was one aspect of the vote that was greeted with joy by marine watchers: a ban on a controversial fishing practice that makes fish easier to catch by sending electric pulses along the seabed to stir up fish lying in sediment.

The practice, known as ‘pulse fishing’, is currently used by 84 vessels in the Dutch fleet under a special derogation to the EU-wide ban on electric fishing, which allows 5 percent of each country’s fleet to use the controversial technique.

Reacting to the vote, Dutch fishing organisation Stichting De Noordzee said:

“Because the opportunities and risks [of pulse fishing] still need to be investigated, it’s regrettable that the European Parliament has taken such a hard line. At the same time, the Dutch government should have been more careful about issuing permits for pulse fishing. We call on the fish industry to not become despondent and to embrace further innovation.”

In a letter to MEPs earlier this week, a group of NGOs said:

“It is essential that the [legislative] framework does not allow for the use or extension of pulse trawling and other ‘innovative fishing gears’ unless independent scientific assessments demonstrate, with a high degree of certainty, that they do not cause more harm to the marine environment than conventional methods, or introduce new types of harm.”