Floating mat of dead fish highlights France’s ‘lax’ attitude to overfishing

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Some 100,000 dead fish were washed into the sea off the coast of France on Thursday by one of the world’s largest fishing vessels. While the crew called it a “fishing accident”, the NGO Sea Shepherd denounced it as “looting”. She hopes shocking images of dead marine life will raise enough awareness for strong policy decisions to be made to tackle overfishing.

From a distance, it looks like a long white streak of sea foam. At close range, the footage is made up of the silvery bodies of some 100,000 dead fish, thrown overboard by the Dutch trawler FV Margiris, the second-largest vessel fishing in the world. Grisly images of this carpet of dead fish went viral on social media when Sea Shepherd posted them on Thursday, as part of their Operation Ocean Killers in the Bay of Biscay on the French Atlantic coast.

Condemning the immersion as a “looting” of the sea, the NGO, which is dedicated to the protection of marine ecosystems, demanded answers from the French Minister of the Sea Annick Girardin. Girardin announced on Friday that he had requested the opening of an administrative investigation into the incident.


The incident, which happened early Thursday morning, was caused by a break in the trawler’s net, fishing industry group the European Pelagic Freezer Trawlers Association (PFA), representing the owner, said. of the Margiris. In a statement, PFA described it as an “accident” and a “very rare event”. Sea Shepherd disputes this version of events, saying it is far from uncommon and is simply an illegal dumping of over 100,000 unwanted fish. The NGO hopes that the images will help raise awareness among French citizens of the disastrous consequences of overfishing.

“This vessel is used to this kind of ‘fishing accident’. It has already been involved in discarding unwanted catches,” Lamya Essemlali, president of Sea Shepherd France, told FRANCE 24. We’ve already filmed other vessels also releasing thousands of dead fish in their wake, so it’s an ‘accident’ that often happens on these vessels,” she said.

French fishermen “think the ocean belongs to them”

The Sea Shepherd France team had seen the vessel arrive in the Bay of Biscay, Essemlali said. “We spotted the arrival of the Margiri on MarineTraffic.com, so we left the port of La Rochelle on Wednesday evening and headed straight for her.” Their objective was to film the fishing operation, “to show the general public what industrial fishing looks like with giant trawlers”.

Dubbed “the monster” by British media, the 6,200-tonne, 143-meter-long Margiris has already been the subject of a massive outcry in Australia, where it was banned after NGOs mobilized public opinion .

In 2019, British environmentalists staged a protest against its presence in British waters. “They failed to ban it because the UK was still part of the European Union at the time and didn’t have the leeway that Australia had,” Essemlali said, referring to a common fisheries policy according to which decisions must be taken. taken at European level.

However, France’s fishing policies are anomalous, Essemlali said. “It’s not Europe that prevents France from taking the right measures, but rather France that brakes every time Europe wants to tighten controls.” This situation is explained by a feeling of omnipotence among French fishermen who, says Essemlali, “think that the ocean belongs to them”.

Mandatory on-board cameras

The day after Sea Shepherd posted its photographs of the dead fish on social media, Girardin responded with a tweet. “These images are certainly shocking,” she wrote.


“The minister seems surprised to see these images, but unfortunately France has a very long history of deficiencies in fisheries control,” Essemlali said, citing tens of thousands of euros in fines for “lax” control. of fishing and a formal notice from the European Commission. last June.

“It’s not a rare occurrence,” Essemlali said. “We are quite surprised to see how eagerly the minister approves and validates Margiris’ version of the accident.”

Sea Shepherd has been careful to point out that overfishing is the number one threat to the survival of the ocean, and this is the subject of scientific consensus. “It means there is a responsibility and a duty of transparency on the part of the fishermen,” Essemlali said.

Indeed, for the NGO, the heart of the problem remains the opacity of what is happening at sea. “The sea is a zone of impunity”, declared Essemlali. “Our regulations in France are not sufficient to prevent the destruction of the marine ecosystem and effectively protect endangered species. Moreover, these regulations are not respected and controlled.”

That’s why Sea Shepherd is calling for mandatory on-board cameras to identify and keep the most destructive fishing vessels docked in port. They want those who sail on the high seas “to be better controlled, to be held accountable and to ensure that we are not held to the only version of the shipowners”.

Sea Shepherd’s action also aimed to highlight the reality of overfishing, of which French citizens are often unaware, Essemlali said. “When you are a French citizen, you are a member of a nation that has a leading role to play in the management of the sea,” she told FRANCE 24.

France has the longest coastline in Europe, it is the second largest maritime power in the world and it is the only country to be present on all the oceans of the world. “The defense of the ocean must be a major national cause. However, the lines will only move at the political level if public opinion takes hold of this subject.”

A few days before the opening of the One Ocean Summit, a summit organized at the initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron, Sea Shepherd hopes that the disaster it uncovers will have had enough impact on society to help accelerate the decision. Politics. manufacturing.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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