On some occasions, the activities of these vessels have extended into Spanish waters.
The research catamaran of the Oceana organisation, the Ranger, has been carrying out “in situ” surveillance of the illegal Italian driftnet fleet since the beginning of July, which operates out of bases in Sicily, Sardinia, around Naples and Sorrento, and the small archipelagos of Ponza, Ischia and Eolie. This fleet is made up of around 150 fishing vessels, whose activities, on some occasions, have spread into Spanish waters: for example, one of these boats, the Ausonia, was recently detained and escorted to the port of Mahon (Minorca) by a Spanish patrol vessel.
Up to now, the Oceana researchers have detected the presence of 36 boats in the ports of Sant Antioco, Calasseta, Sorrento, Ponza and Ischia. All the vessels documented were carrying driftnets of between 5 and 16 kilometres long, as well as the winches and illuminated buoys used for working with this fishing method.
Driftnets have a devastating impact, not just in terms of the overfishing of swordfish but also because hundreds of dolphins, pilot whales, sperm whales and other mammals and sea turtles die in their meshes.
“Driftnets have been completely banned by European legislation since 2002, and the Italian government financed, with EU funds, the conversion of this fleet, earmarking just over 200 million euros for this purpose. Many of the boat-owners who received these subsidies are still fishing with illegal nets”, declared researcher Domitilla Senni, who collaborates with Oceana in Italy.
Once an illegal fishing vessel has been detected, the Ranger crew document it graphically and collect as much information as possible about its activities, sending the details to the Italian Coast Guard authorities.
Patrols have intervened in several of these cases, arresting the illegal fishermen and confiscating and impounding their nets while waiting for the requisite court cases to take place.
Oceana’s actions would seem to have contributed to setting in motion an unusual level of activity by the authorities in detaining vessels that use these banned fishing nets.
This is reflected in the numerous news items on confiscated nets that have recently been appearing in the Italian press.
On Sunday 24 July, the Ranger intercepted the driftnetter Stella del Sud, based on the Isle of Ischia, while it was fishing 11 miles south of the island, and was able to film the illegal activity before the crew on the fishing boat hurriedly pulled in their nets and made off at top speed. Oceana’s vessel alerted the Maritime Command headquarters in Naples by radio and the authorities immediately sent out a patrol launch, which intercepted the escaping fishing boat, escorted it into port and confiscated and impounded its nets.
In addition to this action, motivated directly by the intervention of the Ranger, the Italian Finance Guard has captured an indeterminate number of vessels in the Gulf of Salerno, although their names have not been released. And coinciding with the presence of the Oceana catamaran, there has been a noticeable amount of activity by the Sardinian coastguards in the last few days.
These interventions on the high seas are essential, because –according to the Italian authorities’ interpretation of the law- vessels cannot be detained in port, even if the banned nets are visible on board.
“The Italian government, and the regional Sicilian government, have created a shameful tangle of laws and decrees in their attempt to face up to their responsibility and put a stop to destructive fishing techniques that have been banned by the United Nations and the European Union”, stated oceanographer Xavier Pastor, the coordinator of the expedition on board the Ranger. “Oceana’s investigative work on Italian ports and seas aims to force the authorities of this country to comply with their own laws”.