Author: Fiona Harvey
Posted on: The Guardian| January 15th, 2018
Europe’s parliament will vote on Tuesday on the controversial issue of electric pulse fishing, in a debate that could decide the future of the fishing method.
The debate is crucial for the UK, despite Brexit, because the UK’s fleets have yet to decide whether to lobby the government post-Brexit for an expansion in pulse fishing. Tuesday’s debate and vote will give an indication of both current scientific advice on the issue, and the strength of public opinion.
But while several groups representing small-scale fishing fleets in the EU are lobbying for a previous ban on the method to be reinstated, the European commission is understood to be concerned that the controversy could derail other important reforms in the fisheries package before the parliament. This may encourage some MEPs to vote to allow the practice to continue.
Pulse fishing is claimed by many conservationists to be a cruel and destructive, as well as unnecessary, method of fishing. However, others see it as a more humane alternative to the destructive practices of beam trawling, in which a heavy metal bar is dragged across the sea floor. Pulse fishing sends a current of electricity through sections of the seabed, disturbing the fish and propelling some of them into the net, but beam trawling can rip up the seabed along with fish habitats.
The vote will have little immediate impact on the UK, because pulse fishing is little used here, and because after Brexit ministers are determined to craft a separate national fishing policy. But the UK’s fleets are watching the debate closely, because after Brexit they and the government could choose either to employ the method more widely, or to ban it in British waters.
This week, the UK’s fleets will also announce an agreement with the Netherlands, which operates by far the greatest number of pulse fishing vessels in Europe, to restrict the practice over areas deemed sensitive. These include fishing grounds near the Thames estuary.
But Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, which co-brokered the agreement, was careful to say the agreement would not shape fishermen’s views on whether the government should allow pulse fishing post-Brexit.
Instead, he said: “It seemed worthwhile to see if a voluntary agreement could be reached quickly, to ensure the closed areas are in the right place and at the right time. The Dutch fishermen have responded positively so we have taken a small step forward … but it is without prejudice to any government policies that might be adopted in the future on the basis of scientific advice.”
The Netherlands has at least 84 and possibly close to 100 pulse fishing vessels, in contrast to the 12 that have so far been licensed in the UK. Some of the vessels officially registered in the UK and other EU countries are believed to be financed and operated by Dutch owners. The Netherlands was the main beneficiary of a 2006 decision by the European Union to allow pulse fishing, a reversal of its 1998 ban of the practice.
Electric pulse gear can cost as much as £300,000 to fit on a vessel. It consists mainly of electrodes that are attached to the bottom of nets that touch the seabed, sending electrical pulses through the surrounding area.
Rebecca Hubbard, programme director of Our Fish, one of a group of conservation groups lobbying for the EU pulse fishing ban to be reinstated, told the Guardian: “Pulse fishing is not proven to be better than bottom trawling in terms of ecological impacts. It just uses less fuel, so is more profitable for vessels to run. It is an indiscriminate method of fishing with ten times more discards than low impact methods, and there is no independent science on impacts to marine life living in the sediment, or species such as sharks and rays. Beam trawls are extremely destructive, but replacing them with electric pulse trawling is not the answer.”
Scientific research on the effects of pulse fishing has been fought over, with campaigners claiming it shows electric fishing is a destructive method and EU officials, and some scientists, taking a more neutral ground. The European commission is also understood to be concerned that other important reforms scheduled to be included in Tuesday’s vote, such as measures to prevent overfishing and environmental damage from fisheries, could be sidetracked or fail to be enacted because of the concerns raised over pulse fishing, which affects less than 0.1% of the EU’s fleet.
A spokesman for the commission told the Guardian: “The proposal on pulse fishing is based on independent scientific advice and not conditioned by lobbying. Contrary to claims, the latest advice, both from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, and the scientific, technical and economic committee for fisheries, composed of independent experts, have recommended to proceed with removing the limit on vessels that can use pulse fishing.”
The commission said scientists had advised, in 2012 and 2016, that pulse fishing could reduce bycatch, limit the damage from fishing to seabeds, and cut carbon emissions.