The European Parliament is to vote Tuesday on a controversial fishing technique, banned in much of the world, but partially authorised by the EU and defended as “environmentally friendly” by the European Commission and some researchers.
Environmental campaigners and groups representing small-scale fishing fleets have called for a full ban on electrical pulse fishing to be reinstated. It was forbidden by the EU in 1998 but over the past decade a number of exemptions have been granted for the North Sea.
The technique involves devices being attached to fishing nets, which send electrical pulses designed to shock fish out from the sea bed and into the nets.
Its use has been promoted by the Dutch government and the country’s fishermen who argue that trawlers employing it use less fuel, catch fewer fish unintentionally, and do less damage to the sea bed.
Electric pulse fishing has been given a provisional seal of approval by the European Commission, which denies that its opinion is influenced by Dutch lobbying.
It has said that the latest scientific advice from an independent expert committee was to remove the constraints on vessels using electric pulse fishing. The technique has several biological, environmental and economic advantages over traditional trawling, the Commission has been quoted as saying, and is more environmentally friendly if carried out correctly.
“It reduces by-catch, reduces damage to the seabed and reduces CO2 emissions. That is why the Commission is looking into this proposal, which will be discussed by Parliament,” Politico reported a spokesperson as saying.
Other researchers argue that the electrodes are lightweight and stimulate the fish into the nets without the need for larger gear dragging along the sea bed.
In November, the EU Fisheries Committee voted to allow pulse fishing by a small percentage of ships on a trial basis under strict conditions. Widespread commercial practice should only be allowed if studies showed no “direct or cumulative negative impacts” on the marine environment, it said.
‘This practice shames Europe’
Nearly 250 French parliamentarians from several parties signed an article in Le Monde newspaper calling on the European Parliament to ban electric pulse fishing definitively, saying its effects were considered harmful by scientists, fishermen and numerous countries. "This practice shames Europe and damages our credibility on the international stage," they wrote.
It pointed out that the technique was banned in many countries, including the United States, Brazil and Uruguay, and had also been banned in the East China Sea.
“Industrial electric pulse trawlers plough up the seabed, indiscriminately electrocute all marine life, and discard up to 60 percent of their catch: it’s an ecological disaster!” claims the BLOOM Association in its petition to the European Parliament.
The Green Party MEP Molly Scott Cato told The Guardian that pulse fishing “seems pretty barbaric” and appeared to cause unnecessary suffering to fish. “It cannot be justified to replace one damaging fishing technology with another. The impact on fish and other marine wildlife of pulse fishing is unclear, and it thus also appears to violate the precautionary principle.”
French MEP Yannick Jadot has said on French media that French fishermen oppose the technique, accusing their Dutch counterparts of emptying sea beds and turning them into “cemeteries”.
The Dutch Federation of Fish and environmental campaign groups have each accused each other of spreading a false narrative about electric pulse fishing and its effects.
The UK’s National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) has claimed that the electric pulse method has led to intensified fishing in some areas off the English coast, calling on governments to protect “sensitive” fishing grounds until a definitive scientific view emerges.
A voluntary agreement was struck between English and Dutch fishermen in December whereby pulse vessels from the Netherlands will refrain from operating in some of the most sensitive areas, as a “goodwill gesture”.
“We recognise that pulse fishing is new and controversial and has led to changes in the spatial distribution and intensity of fishing in some areas,” said Pim Visser, CEO of the Dutch organisation VisNed. He highlighted “an enormous amount of scientific work” on the issue and acknowledged the English concerns, despite his belief that much opinion was “wildly alarmist”.
The European Parliament is due to vote on whether to allow the practice to continue, in its full session on Tuesday.