July 5, 2010 5:27 pm

Italy tackles abuse of EU fishing subsidies

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woman looking art swordfish in fish market in Catania
 Swordfish for sale at a market in Catania, Sicily. Photo: Eleonora de Sabata

Italian fishermen in Calabria repeatedly caught abusing European Union and national subsidies have finally surrendered 280km of illegal driftnets nearly a decade after they should have been destroyed as part of a European effort to save endangered species.

Fishermen from the port of Bagnara Calabra – where swordfish has been the mainstay of the local economy for some 2,000 years – handed in their nets after accumulating €400,000 ($504,000, £320,000) in fines for their illegal use.

Despite their repeated use of banned nets, local authorities commended them for their “sensitivity to the environment”, while the coast guard saw the “mass confession” as a sign of a community moving to a legal footing.

However, non-government organisations trawling data from EU sources and official reports have found that a third of pirate driftnetters penalised in Italy in the last five years had previously received more than €12m in public funding to stop using the nets.

“The case of Italian driftnet fisheries shows the lack of transparency and control by the EU on the allocation of public funding to fishermen that flout the rules, and the paradox of public money going to support illegal fishing,” commented Domitilla Senni, adviser to the Pew Environment Group, a non-profit organisation that funds Fishsubsidy.org to monitor the annual €1bn European fishing subsidies.

Driftnets in the Mediterranean are up to 20km long and used mainly to catch swordfish. The annual market value of the legal catch is estimated at some €2bn a year, while the illegal catch may be as much again. But only 20 per cent of the catch is swordfish. The rest inc- ludes endangered dolphins, whales, sharks and turtles.

With an estimated 10,000 marine mammals dying each year in the Mediterranean at the height of driftnet use, the United Nations General Assembly called for a moratorium in 1991. The EU imposed a total ban in 2001 and set up a compensation scheme for fishermen. Some €200m was distributed to 700 Italian vessels – the largest driftnet fleet in the Mediterranean – by the EU and local governments.

But Italy has struggled to enforce the ban under pressure from politically powerful fishing communities.

Mafia clans control the trade in swordfish in parts of Sicily, while elsewhere people involved in illegal fishing have infiltrated local governments. Some fishermen also store nets in non-EU countries where their use is not forbidden.

After repeated infringements recorded by NGOs and EU inspectors, Italy was sanctioned over the issue by the European Court of Justice in 2009.

Since a tightening of controls in 2006, more than 3,000km of nets have been confiscated, with restrictions placed on hundreds of vessels.

The military has maintained a presence in Bagnara’s harbour since last year and three people have been arrested.

Observers say those handing in the nets are unlikely to be penalised and may escape paying the fines.

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