EU Transparency

Exposed: how the EU subsidises illegal fishing

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While Europe’s sensitive fish stocks are dwindling rogue fishermen continue to over-exploit the seas in boats built with EU money. This is an extraordinary example of where policy meets reality: efforts by the EU to preserve our fish sare being thwarted by EU measures to build a better fishing fleet.

Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been spent by the EU helping to build, modernize, and retire fishing vessels across the EU, that have then been found guilty of exploiting Europe’s dwindling fish stocks. And these are only the vessels that are caught illegal fishing, not the ones that get away with breaking the EU’s fishing quotas and other rules. Fabrice Persine, an artisanal fisherman based in Dunkerque, freely admits that he recently breached his quota when he landed 700 kilos of sole valued at £22,000: “What am I supposed to do? Leave my boat at the quayside. The bank will take my home.”

“The EU gave me a subsidy, then what, it wants me to keep the boat in the port. It is ridiculous”. Fabrice received £165,000 in 2002 to build his boat. In some cases, fishermen have even benefited from EU subsidies after being prosecuted for illegal fishing. The true scale of how many vessels have received funds and committed fishing crimes remains unknown because EU member states have different rules for publishing illegal fishing infractions.

And nothing is in place at EU level to claw-back subsidies from errant fishing boat owners or stop them getting aid in the future, exposing a gaping whole in the EU’s policy making and negligent attitude towards how tax payers money is spent. Most member states, France, Italy and Spain, for instance, are big beneficiaries of EU fishing subsidies, but don’t make public fined imposed on fishermen. Britain and Denmark, on the other hand, are more open about who has committed fishing offences.

From 2000 to 2006 alone,  €4bn was paid out in part by the European Commission and member states to fishermen. Thousands of fishermen took up the grants across the EU, and generous grants too. Individual fishermen, in some cases, received over €1m to build trawlers that can stay for weeks at sea. Such is the nature of marine fishing that trawlers do spend weeks at sea travelling far from their home ports to fishing grounds around other member states, that are patrolled by those countries.

Onboard a French fishing vessel - Photo credit: European Commission

Onboard a French fishing vessel - Photo credit: European Commission

From 2006 to 2008 30 non-British, but registered in another EU members state, vessels were picked up by the British maritime police and prosecuted for illegal fishing offences including: exceeding catch quotas and breaching bans on catching Cod – stock that is already at dangerously low levels. Two-thirds of the vessels had benefited from EU subsidies totalling €5bn.  In most cases the boat owners were granted up to 50% of the costs of building the vessel. The same analysis of prosecutions of UK registered vessels showed that only 2% of vessels were grant aided. This is partly explained by the fact that the UK was slower than other countries at rolling out the EU funding program. Most of the subsidised foreign vessels prosecuted in the UK were French, followed by the Belgian, Irish and Dutch.

Boulogne-sur-Mer, France’s biggest fishing port, is where some of the French vessels prosecuted in the UK are based. In 2006, the owner of Saint Jacques II was fined £36,000 for mis-recording a cod catch by a British court. Loic Margolle, the owner, complained: “It was awful. I only made a little mistake”.

At the port, the local maritime police carry out controls while the fishermen land their stocks. For a similar offence here the owner would have received a much lighter fine, an estimated €3,000. This information would not be made public either. France’s central government claims that releasing information about illegal fishing fines would put national security at risk. However, the local maritime police conformed that several of the subsidised vessels prosecuted in the UK had also been fined in France – serial offenders both sides of the Channel that were fishing in vessels subsidised by the EU. Moreover, other French subsidised vessels had been fined in France alone.

One vessel, le Precurseur, was nicknamed ‘Le Villan’ by the local maritime police. He had received at least 24 fines for illegal fishing, the highest number of fines issued to a single fishing vessel in the region. The owner, Pierre Hagnere, was also prosecuted for illegal fishing in the UK in 2008.  He received £367,000 in 1999 from the EU and French government to build the boat. In 2005, he got an extra £10,500. When approached the owner said: “I am not a bandit. I am just a fisherman making a living. There are others in the port that are doing things just as bad as me, but they are not fined. I got a subsidy, but the government has recouped it through taxes.”

Another local trawler, Jacques de Thezac, received £86,000 in 2002, was fined in the UK in 2006, and was recently approved an estimated £300,000 grant in France to scrap the vessel. Of the British vessels fined by the local authorities none of them had received subsidies. The same situation is mirrored in Ireland. From 2006 to 2008, 17 non-Irish EU registered vessels were charged in criminal courts with illegal fishing. Eight of them had received €1.7m in subsidies in their home country.

Two of the subsidised vessels were also prosecuted in the UK: the Gwaien, a French trawler and Arcane, a British trawler. The European Commission says that once subsidies are no longer given to fishermen the problem will disappear. It’s trying to end subsidy payments as part of the current round of CFP reform. How can the problem disappear though? Subsidised vessels will be roaming Europe’s waters for the next 20-30 years, the normal lifespan for a fishing trawler. Potentially, subsidised vessels will be fishing illegally for many years to come.

This article is the result of an investigation for the UK’s Channel Four. The TV feature can be viewed below.