Governments and the EU are not seriously defending the Mediterranean seabed from illegal fishing. This was denounced by the newly launched coalition of NGOs called the Med Sea Alliance, which today published important data and studies, obtained exclusively, including the first interactive atlas that shows offenses in areas closed to fishing activity. According to the report, controls that lack transparency are allowing for the looting of the most overexploited sea in the world, as well as one of the richest in biodiversity. Nearly 75% of fish stocks in the Mediterranean are overfished and the variety of species per area exceeds the average by about 10 times worldwide.
With 5,884 vessels estimated to be in operation, according to the 2020 FAO report, trawling represents 39% of the revenues of the entire Mediterranean fishing sector. The Italian fleet is the largest, with 2024 boats. According to data from the international NGO Oceana (a member of Med Sea Alliance), Italian trawlers have allegedly fished over three times longer than those from all other countries in unprotected vulnerable habitats.
“Scraping the seabed with its nets, bottom trawling mows crucial marine habitats. It disturbs marine sediments that store carbon, thus boosting climate change impacts," says Nicolas Fournier, Director of Habitat Protection Campaigns at Oceana the NGO Oceana. “It also kills a record number of endangered species, often thrown back dead or dying into the sea, in particular sea turtles, sharks and rays.”
Trawling is regulated in the Mediterranean by a complex mosaic of national, EU and international rules. In addition to the general prohibition below 1000 meters and within 3 nautical miles (5.6 km) from the coast, there are closures in force during certain periods. Furthermore, specific categories of areas benefit from either more protection or are impacted by less controls. That maximum applies to most Fisheries Restricted Areas established by the General Commission for Fisheries in the Mediterranean which brings together EU and non-EU countries. Instead, it ranges from full prohibition to small localized limitations of trawling in the so-called Marine Protected Areas, created by individual states to achieve the environmental protection objectives envisaged by multilateral agreements (in particular the International Convention on Biodiversity). The restricted areas, envisaged by the 2006 EU Mediterranean Regulation, have mostly remained a dead letter.
Despite all the existing rules, "only 0.2% of the Mediterranean Sea is fully protected, far too little to fix the situation," continues Fournier.
On November 2, the Med Sea Alliance launched an interactive atlas that features offenses in most of the 350 areas closed to the trawl (178 in Italy) that were analyzed and grouped into four categories: Fisheries Restricted Areas, Marine Protected Areas (reserves or parks) and national restrictions, such as Biological Protection Zones in Italy, and Natura 2000 sites, introduced by the European Habitats Directive.
The map displays not only the infractions reported by local authorities or the media (between 2018 and 2021), but also those which, although not yet ascertained, can be presumed on the basis of AIS (automatic identification system) tracks of the vessels, analyzed on the Global Fishing Watch platform (between 2020 and 2021).
The AIS satellite communication system, introduced by the International Maritime Organization to avoid collisions and mandatory in the EU on all vessels over 15 meters, is a transponder which provides the type, position, direction and speed of the vessels which can be accessed through open source data platforms, such as Global Fishing Watch. The algorithm’s combination of these parameters makes it possible to deduce with high probability whether fishing activity has taken place in a specific area.
The Med Sea Alliance Atlas indicates 85 infractions registered and sanctioned by the Coast Guard for Italy, half of the 170 recorded for all coastal states. The latter not only have much fewer closed areas, but have refused to communicate their full official data (the Atlas shows only a few of the ones published in the media), proving to be less transparent than Italy. The total alleged infringements based on AIS positioning, on the other hand, relate to 35 protected areas and 305 fishing boats, for a total of 9,518 days.
However, it must be said that the Italian Coast Guard collects data only in relation to managed areas, such as Fisheries Restricted Areas and Marine Protected Areas (respectively 80 e 5, as shown in the Atlas), but not for Biological Protection Zones and Natura 2000 sites, categories for which an aggregate calculation of infringements is lacking. For such areas the Atlas only shows presumed infringements which were traced in Italy in 14 areas by 114 fishing boats.
A study carried out by the University of Ancona on behalf of the CNR, published in 2019, revealed that of the 12 Biological Protection Zones analyzed (less than half of the 26 existing), 11 were found to have had trawling activity take place by 217 vessels on two-thirds of their total area.
Worse still is the situation of Natura 2000 sites, aimed at protecting the most vulnerable marine ecosystems. The Mediterranean Regulation requires for trawling to be completely forbidden, but governments are slow to adapt. For example, in the Natura 2000 site of the Egadi Archipelago (in Sicily), trawling is prohibited in the Marine Protected Area of the same name, but only around the islands, while it is allowed in the sea space that separates them, although it is also part of the site. Since there are no statistics on infringements in the Biological Protection Zones and Natura 2000 sites, the Atlas indicates for these areas only presumptions of wrongdoing.
Global Fishing Watch has provided us with the AIS geo-positioning of a dozen suspicious boats with the tricolor flag. Although EU legislation authorizes AIS for cross-checks, Italian legislation does not allow it as a test tool or prosecuting tool. We have asked the Coast Guard whether or not to confirm any offenses through the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) satellite control system, considered officially probative. We got no response.
"All reports are subject to verification," the press office of the General Command replied to our request for comments on the findings of the report, stating however that "there is no correlation between the reports received, the checks carried out and any sanctions imposed at national level".
In fact, there is no way to ascertain whether or not the authorities have intervened on specific cases of offense. "I regularly report to the port authorities in Tuscany (one of the regions with the highest number of inspections) cases of trawling within the prohibited limit of 1.5 miles from the coast, at that close distance important habitats are ruined and taken away amberjacks, sea bream, white bream, that is the species on which small artisanal fishing lives depend," says Paolo Fanciulli, Tuscan fisherman and founder of the Onlus Casa del Pesce that has been fighting for years for the protection of the sea. “Often the boats caught in the act, they operate at night when the patrol boats do not go out, moreover by illegally turning off the AIS in order not to be intercepted.”
Tampering with location systems is one of the most recurrent types of offenses found in Italian waters which in 2021, totaled 1739, according to the latest joint report of the Coast Guard and the Fisheries Department of the Ministry of Agriculture.
“Accomplice to the fraudulent fishing boats is the EU itself,” argues Domitilla Senni, Director of MedReact, a member of Med Sea Alliance.
“It closes its eyes to the lack of national protection of the habitats of marine phanerogams, coralligens, maërl beds and posidonia meadows included in Natura 2000 sites, important nurseries for marine fauna,” said Senni.
Whilst analyzing 184 sites (131 in Italy, 25 in Spain, 20 in France, 3 in Greece, 3 in Slovenia and 2 in Croatia), the EU-based NGO MedReact found that national authorities enforce the trawling ban only in the portions of Natura 2000 sites that contain the habitats themselves. “These continue to be suffocated and degraded by the sediments raised by the passage of the nets in the surrounding areas,” said Senni.
MedReact questioned the limited protection of Natura 2000 sites offered by Member States. "The Mediterranean Regulation must be interpreted in the sense that trawling must be excluded in the entire surface of the Natura 2000 sites used for the protection of the habitats in question, in order to offer real protection," explains the professor of international law at the University of Milan-Biccocca, Tullio Scovazzi, who provided MedReact with a legal advise.
We asked the European Commission to explain how it intends to deal with the flawed implementation of the Mediterranean Regulation at national level. "We have addressed the limited progress of the Member States by proposing new multiannual management plans in the western Mediterranean and the Adriatic and by collaborating with the General Fisheries Commission in the Mediterranean for the establishment of new Restricted Areas for Fisheries," explains the spokesperson for the Brussels executive.
However, the aforementioned measures encounter political resistance. "Italy has evaded the Western Mediterranean Plan by resorting to the derogation which exempts governments from periodically prohibiting trawling along the entire coast (for three consecutive months within 6 miles at a depth not exceeding," says Senni. “Moreover, while the establishment of some Fisheries Restricted Areas, such as that of the Fossa di Pomo in the Adriatic, can give extraordinary results for the repopulation of the sea, it is difficult to replicate these successful examples in other areas of the Mediterranean," continued Senni.
As revealed by Oceana in a 2020 report, the Biological Protection Zones have also been recycled by Italy as a Protected fishing areas. According to the EU dictates, these were to be additional areas to extend the protection of essential Mediterranean habitats beyond Natura 2000 sites. Also, Italy and other Member States have even designated as protected fishing areas some Marine Protected Areas which (besides being still too small) may not have an integral trawler ban. To remedy this, the European Parliament last May asked for a complete block of trawling activity in all Marine Protected Areas.
But not everyone agrees: "We believe a balance between economic, social and environmental sustainability is necessary," declares Cristian Maretti, President of LegaCoop Agroalimentare, affiliated with the Alliance of Italian Cooperatives in the fishing sector and with the European Alliance for trawling (EBFA), "but the ban on trawling would be a mistake that would cost Europe more imports from seas that are already exploited more than ours.”
"We urge the European Commission to sanction countries that do not enforce the trawling bans," says Fournier.
Too bad that governments do not have an obligation to share investigations and sanctions in a centralized database at EU level that makes it possible to ascertain any national non-compliances.
Med Sea Alliance has asked the EU and the GFCM, which will hold its annual meeting from 7 to 11 November, to provide public information at least on confirmed cases.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in il Fatto Quotidiano on 2 November 2022 in Italian. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Atlas Map of the Med Sea Alliance showing presumed infractions across the Mediterranean, November 2022 / Credit: Med Sea Alliance.