Despite the fact that driftnets have been banned in the Mediterranean for many years, a fleet of Moroccan fishing vessels continues to use this destructive fishing gear in the Alboran Sea and the Straits of Gibraltar, setting nets up to 12 kilometres long. Oceana, the marine conservation organisation, estimates that this fleet is made up of at least 150 vessels.
Hundreds of tons of swordfish caught illegally with these driftnets are sold in Spain by companies located in Vigo that distribute this product within the national market and re-export it to Italy. Oceana has published a new report this week that includes evidence of these practices based on investigations carried out by the organisation.
The Oceana Ranger research catamaran sailed in waters of the Alboran Sea during August of 2006 to detect, film and photograph the presence of Moroccan driftnetters. Scientists from the organisation also visited the ports of Nador, Alhucemas and Tangiers in order to evaluate the size of the Moroccan fleet dedicated to this fishery and to estimate the amount of driftnets stored at those ports.
Furthermore, Oceana has monitored the commercial channels for the swordfish caught by this fleet that is engaged in pirate fishing activities, technically referred to as “illegal, unregulated and unreported” ( IUU).
The conclusions have been published this week in a report compiled by the organisation called “The use of driftnets by the Moroccan fleet”, the third in a series of documents that analyses the use of these banned nets in the Mediterranean and which also reveals activities of the illegal Italian and French fleets.
One of the most striking conclusions of the latest Oceana report is the fact that only 2% of the swordfish caught by the Moroccan fleet is consumed in that country, whereas 98% of the catch is exported, almost entirely, to Spanish companies based in Vigo. An estimate based on catch and export data arranged by fishing gear demonstrates that 1,150 tons of illegally caught swordfish passed through Spanish distribution channels or Mercas mostly to be re-exported to Italy in 2004 alone; another 230 tons were sold in Spain.
Apart from the banning of these nets by international organisms such as the General Fisheries Council for the Mediterranean (GFCM) or the International Commission for the Conservation of the Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), the use of driftnets for the capture of certain species, including highly migratory species, such as swordfish and red tuna, was banned by a European Union resolution approved in 1997 and later modified in 1998. Before this measure was applied, Spain introduced the moratorium decreed by the UN and prohibited the use of drift nets by Spanish fishing vessels over a decade ago. After tolerating the existence of an illegal fleet operating from the port of Algeciras for a few years, the Spanish government finally decided to completely eliminate these driftnets and became the first country in the European Union to apply this measure.
According to marine biologist Xavier Pastor, Director of Oceana in Europe and one of the authors of the report, “it is ironic that the same country that showed exemplary behaviour by banning driftnets now promotes the use of these nets by the illegal Moroccan fleet, allowing swordfish caught by pirate fishing techniques to be sold in and through Spain.”
Pastor also affirms that the activities carried out by the Moroccan driftnetter fleet directly compete with the Spanish longliner fleet, part of which fishes in the Alboran Sea using legal, albeit less effective, gear from the ports of Almería and Murcia. “The Spanish longliners are offended by the tolerance shown toward the illegal Moroccan fleet, and have even threatened to abandon their gear and convert to the illegal nets.”
The use of driftnets cannot only lead to overfishing of the swordfish stock, which is already in grave danger due to massive catches of young specimens that have not yet reproduced, but also leads to the accidental bycatch of thousands of cetaceans and sharks. Scientific studies cited in the Oceana report estimate that more than 17,000 striped and common dolphins are victims of the Moroccan driftnets, as well as more than 31,000 specimens of three shark species (thresher, mako and blue sharks). Driftnets also catch thousands of sunfish, one of the most important predators of jellyfish.
The Oceana report explains how large numbers of Moroccan driftnets are set up, often within the maritime traffic area of the Straits of Gibraltar, and how messages sent by the Coast Guard based in Tarifa frequently warn the vessels travelling within this area of the existence of hundreds of kilometres of nets blocking the Straits, and which could get caught in their propellers or rudders.
Both the European Union and the United States are maintaining conversations with the Moroccan Government urging them to prohibit the use of driftnets within their fleets. As part of a new fishing agreement, the European Union will subsidise Morocco, providing 1,250,000 Euros each year to contribute to the conversion of this fleet. Nevertheless, the European Union continues fulfilling its markets´ requests with swordfish that is illegally captured mostly through Spanish channels of importation. This further promotes this illegal fishing gear, unanimously condemned by the international community.
 See also Idrissi, M.M. (2006). Pêcherie de l´espadon en Méditerranée marocaine: exploitation, analyse socio-économique et commercialisation. University of Barcelona. Barcelona, April 5th, 2006.