Italian illegal driftnets

Dec. 10, 2010.

UPDATE: 14 December 2010

A new, wide-ranging report on Illegal, Unregulated or Unreported (IUU) fishing by Italian drift-netters is now available in both English and Italian (PDF downloads). An updated data file showing the underlying data is also available (Google spreadsheet).

Here is the previously published story on abuse of the EU’s drift net conversion programme in Italy

Research by and its Italian partners has revealed disarray in the EU-funded plan to rid the Mediterranean of damaging driftnets.

Driftnets, known as ‘walls of death’, are a threat to marine life including dolphins, sea turtles and sharks. The nets can extend to dozens of kilometres. In 1992 the EU agreed to ban driftnets longer than 2.5 km or to catch certain species, with the ban coming into force in 2002. Between 1998 and 2002 the EU promoted driftnet reconversion plans for the Italian fishing fleet. Approximately 700 vessels were involved and the plan was half financed by the EU and half by national aids. The total amount is estimated to be €200 million.

Following the repeated infringements of the driftnet ban recorded by Greenpeace, OCEANA, The Humane Society, WWF as well as by EU inspectors, an infraction proceeding was filed against the Italian government. In 2009 the European Court of Justice ruled that between 2000 and 2005 Italy had failed to properly control and sanction the use of driftnets.

Controls were increased and between 2005 and 2009 over 300 Italian fishing vessels were sanctioned for illegal use of driftnets, according to data released by the Italian Coast Guard. Of these, 89 vessels had previously received aid to convert to other fishing gear (the average amount of conversion aid was €170,000 per vessel). In addition, marine conservation groups have recorded sightings of dozens of vessels using prohibited driftnets. (See the full list here)

In the years that followed some of the sanctioned vessels received additional EU aid for modernisation, scrapping or exit from the fleet. Two cases are particularly interesting.

  1. Sibari and Sibari II. In 2002, the vessel Sibari received 72.000€ from the 2002 driftnet reconversion plan. In 2004, Sibari was scrapped and the owner compensated with €403,000. That money was used to purchase in 2005 the vessel Fioreavanti which was then renamed Sibari II (5RC1097). Sibari II was caught three times with illegal driftnets (“spadara”) and sanctioned once in 2005 and twice in 2006. On June 20th, 2006 the Coast Guard seized 11 km of driftnets, 500 kg of swordfish and 150 kg of tuna. At the end of 2006 Sibari II left the fleet and received €545,000 (50% from FIFG and 50% national aid).

  2. MZ01026 (no name known). This driftnetter received €192,000 in 1998 through the first driftnet conversion plan (that money was received as compensation for giving up drifnet fishing). In 1999 it received an additional €123,000 for scrapping and the EU fleet register records it as being demolished that year (the vessel’s CFR number is ITA000005819). In 2006, MZ1026 was found with a driftnet and sanctioned. It is unclear if the vessel was also seized.

Recent developments

Last April the Italian government announced a bluefin tuna (BFT) moratorium for Italian purse seiners and that a an initial 50% of the national bluefin tuna quota would be made available to longliners, fixed tuna traps and recreational fisheries.

The driftnet fleet immediately jumped on the opportunity and is now asking for additional longline licenses. Up to last week the Italian government had received a total of 54 demands for new longline licences including from vessels on the ‘black list’ for illegal use of driftnets.

The driftnet fleet appears to be exploiting a loophole in the current control system. Controls on a fishing vessels having both small driftnets (“ferrettara”) and longline licenses is difficult because although fishermen are not allowed to catch swordfish or tuna with a ferrettare, if they are have a longline license and are caught with these species on board, they can pretend the fish were caught with longliners even though they were actually caught with driftnets. An internal circular from the Italian ministry of fisheries authorises vessel owners with a ferrattara licence to receive a longline license provided they return a less selective fishing gear.

Commenting on the findings, Jack Thurston, co-founder of said:

“It is a story of waste, fraud and abuse that’s hard to believe. The Italian government must act on these revelations by ensure that all public aid is recovered from those who have benefited from the driftnet reconversion plan but have continued fishing illegally. Furthermore, vessels that infringe the rules of the common fisheries policy should be barred from receiving public aid. Unless sanctions on law-breakers really bite, we can expect that illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing will continue regardless of any control efforts that are put in place. As things stand, Italian fishermen regard the small fines as just another cost of doing business. The Italian government has the powers to levy much higher fines. It’s high time it used its powers to enforce the law.”

A full list of the vessels sanctioned for driftnet use or sighted using driftnets by marine conservation organisations is available here.

See also When crime pays: new data reveals how the EU subsidises illegal fishing