The arrival of two border-control and French Navy helicopters caused the attackers, who were fishing in international waters, to flee.
In the early Monday morning hours, a group of seven French driftnetters carried out a concerted attack on the Oceana Ranger fishery research vessel, which has been recording the activities of a fleet of about 80 French fishing boats using driftnets, about 5 to 8 km in length and known as thonailles, to catch tuna and swordfish in the Gulf of León.
These nets have been banned in the European Union since 2002 and in 2005, the French National Council itself repealed the decrees that authorized the use of these driftnets which had been prohibited by EU regulations. Since then, these boats have been operating not only illegally, but also outside of the protection the French authorities granted them in 2003. In addition to overexploiting blue fin tuna and other large pelagic species, thonailles accidentally capture several hundred cetaceans every year. This fishery even takes place within the Pelagos sanctuary, an international area in French, Italian and Monegasque waters set up for the protection of cetaceans, where yesterday’s incidents occurred.
Six marine biologists are sailing on the Oceana Ranger, together with a professional team of photographic reporters. The crew’s work routine consists of determining the areas in which driftnetters fish and observing the boats’ operations, recording data and taking pictures of the lengths of nets and the catches they take.
This data is then made available to the corresponding authorities in France and other countries, the European Commission and the international bodies responsible for controlling fishing, in order to facilitate illegal fishing (IUU fishing) monitoring. Last year, Oceana carried out a similar campaign, observing the Italian fleet and with the collaboration of the Italian Coastguard.
Oceana is an international and independent marine research and conservation organisation established in 2002, and has headquarters in Europe, and North and South America. Oceana never employs physical confrontation or direct action of any kind in its work approach. Oceana limits itself to collecting scientific and graphic information and transmitting it to the corresponding administrative and other relevant authorities.
After two weeks of conducting research in the Gulf of León and to the north of Corsica, on Monday morning the Oceana Ranger was encircled by a fleet of thonaillers 25 miles south of Saint Raphael. The fishing boats, which had come from various locations, initiated their attacks by firing a flare at the research vessel from the fishing boat Gallus, and then tried to provoke collisions between the catamaran and the fishing boats, all of which were moving at high speeds in an operation coordinated by the Orchidee II and Santa II. Several of the boats repeatedly threw ropes tied to buoys into the water to entangle them in the propellers of the research vessel’s two engines, which had to thus halt its voyage. Then, the fishing boats surrounded and tied up the Oceana Ranger. The fishermen, some armed with boat hooks and displaying their genitals, threatened to board the catamaran unless the cameras were handed over.
Although they are small and look like traditional fishing boats, these French boats have powerful engines, enabling them to fish in international waters and travel at great speeds, and to cast driftnets five to eight kilometres in length. This activity has been declared illegal by the French National Council itself.
Throughout the attack, which lasted over an hour, the Oceana Ranger’s crew stayed calm and did not respond, not even even verbally, to these provocations, concentrating instead their efforts on avoiding collisions with the other boats. The French maritime authorities were informed of the situation by radio and sent two helicopters to the area. With the arrival of the helicopters, the driftnetters fled.
Later, Oceana’s divers removed the ropes that were entangled in the vessel’s propellers and the Ranger continued its journey to the French port of Bastia, in Corsica.
“I am sure that by now the most intelligent thonnailler shipowners will have understood the huge mistake they made in perpetrating this savage attack on a research vessel, which had in no way interfered with their activities and had limited itself to collecting data and taking photos” – said Xavier Pastor, coordinator on board the Oceana Ranger—“If anyone still had any doubt about the illegality of the French driftnets, the brutal attempts by the fishermen to try to avoid at all costs that the general public and the authorities have a chance to contemplate the results of the driftnets is plain to see”.
The Oceana director expressed his concern about the totally distorted version of events presented by representatives of the French fishing fleet. Their version will be refuted as soon as the pictures taken aboard the Oceana Ranger can be delivered to the media and the authorities involved.
More information is available at: Thonaille: the use of driftnets by the French fleet in the Mediterranean