Calabria and Sicily are the Italian regions using this illegal fishing practice the most.
Last week, a team of Oceana investigators made a 2,000-km trip by car along the coastal roads of Southern Italy and Sicily. Over five days they made detailed reconnaissance visits to all of the port regions in Campania and Calabria on the Italian peninsula, and to the northern and western coastline of Sicily. Indeed, even some of the smallest ports in this area of the country have been revealed as havens for dozens of illegal driftnet vessels of all sizes.
The Oceana team was made up of a marine biologist, who is an expert in fishing gear identification, a video cameraman and a photographer, all members of the Oceana Ranger crew. Their boat remained moored in the port of Agropoli, as there was a full moon which means that the driftnet vessels stop fishing and return en masse to their home port. In order to make the most exhaustive inventory possible of those boats that were using driftnets to catch swordfish, the Oceana crew supplemented the patrols that its investigation catamaran has been carrying out at sea over the last few weeks with inspections carried out directly in the ports.
During the investigation the Oceana team visited 20 harbours. In 12 of them, they detected 37 presumably illegal driftnetters, with nets on board, or obvious installations intended to conceal them. Any small driftnetter with nets on board that could not exceed 2.5 km, the length authorized by the Italian government, was excluded from the list. Moreover, conservative estimates were used to calculate the net length. According to Oceana, it was decided to exclude from the list the vessels that probably were illegal, but for which there was not enough evidence of their illegality. Along with the vessels detected in harbours, a further 9 vessels that the Oceana Ranger intercepted while fishing at sea should be included, which brings the total number of illegal driftnetters uncovered so far to 46.
“Unfortunately, our findings have exceeded all of our estimates — states Xavier Pastor, expedition leader – The ports of both Calabria and Sicily are full of fishing boats overladen with driftnets and their accompanying light buoys. Moreover the sterns of these boats are fitted out with the unmistakable three drums whinches that enable the handling of these illegal nets”.
Oceana members have managed to document several of the tricks that are used by the shipowners in order to pull the wool over the inspectors eyes. In addition to the driftnets, a good many of the fishing boats carry longline hooks in order to pretend that they have used these to make their catches. Other shipowners have converted their trawlers into driftnet boats. However they preserve the rigging, the large steel cabled reels and even the trawler tackle on board in order to confuse those who may be observing them from a distance. The majority of the bigger tonnage driftnet vessels cover their decks from any curious onlookers, surrounding them with a plywood and canvas cowling that makes the sighting of the kilometres of nets stored onboard impossible.
The Oceana investigators have images of the unloading, in some ports, of tuna and swordfish directly from the fishing boats to refrigerator lorries that are parked on the quays beside the boats. From there, and without having been subject to any inspection procedure, the lorries transport their cargo to shady circuits involved in the commercialisation of illegally caught fish. Oceana managed to follow one of these lorries and has witnessed how it entered into the basement of a private residential building near Cetraro Marina. The lorry entered through an iron gate that was guarded by several large dogs.
Furthermore, many of the shipowners and crews of the boats revealed to be using driftnets in the investigations carried out by Oceana have been the beneficiaries of over €200 million in subsidies that have come from the pockets of European taxpayers. These funds were intended to subsidise the withdrawal of driftnets and their replacement by more selective fishing gear.
Oceana is making sure that all the detailed information it has gathered is brought to the attention of Italian and European Union authorities. The information forms part of an extensive report that Oceana is preparing to send to the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Anti-fraud Office (OLAF) and the new Italian government. The latter, which has inherited the current situation, is under an obligation to immediately restore legality to the Italian fishing activity.
“If a group of volunteers from a non-governmental organisation is capable of carrying out in one week investigative activity and uncover the presence of illegal driftnet vessels in ports, and has witnessed the unloading there of species, the fishing of which is illegal when these nets are used, surely one can expect that Italian state institutions are in a position to carry out this investigative exercise much more effectively”, declared Xavier Pastor, Director of Oceana in Europe. “All the new government needs to do is to simply put into motion mechanisms that will enforce compliance with current fishing legislation”.