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Tuna wars in Europe

Chandrika SHARMA

12 / 1997

In July 1994, Spanish fishermen boarded, seized and held hostage, the French fishing vessel, La Gabrielle. Later that month, the fishing guilds of Galicia, Cantabria, Asturias and the Basque Country laid seige to the key northern ports of Spain and Hendaye in France, trapping commercial shipping and thousands of tourists. The seige was lifted when the Spanish gover-nment promised to take action in the Eur-opean Commission to see that `illegal use of giant nets to catch tuna would be stopped’.

Spanish fishworkers operate huge 30-m boats, each with 25 to 30 fishworkers, equipped with pole-and-line to fish tuna. This type of operation yields very fresh fish, which is carefully preserved. With profitability low, these fishermen do not wish to be disturbed by any other gear in the same area, since they fear that the tuna shoals may get dislocated. Early in the year, they had warned French and other European fishworkers to keep off their usual fishing grounds or face trouble.

French fishermen are far less numerous. In the 1970s, they abandoned pole-and-line fishing and, helped by technologists from the national institute for modernisation of fisheries, IFREMER, built smaller boats to operate long drift-nets with only five fishworkers.

The drift-nets earned a very bad reputation in the Pacific. Environmentalists campaigned actively against these `curtains of death’. The call for a ban on drift-nets in the Pacific was echoed in the EU regulation of 1991, which limited the length to 2.5 km.

French fishermen protested saying that such short nets would never catch enough and that they would have to rely on the coastal demersal stocks of flat-fish, already fully exploited. For them the ban would mean stopping fishing altogether, they said.

The French minister of fisheries promised his support and induced fishing boats to take aboard a spare net in case the legal one was damaged. Spanish fishermen suspected that every drift-net at sea was above the legal dimension.

Essentially, the tuna war is all about technology and access rights. Tuna fishing in Spain uses a variety of hook-and-line techniques, claimed to be selective and environmentally sound, whereas drift-nets are considered overefficient.

The technology factor gives Spain an opportunity to claim exclusive access to the tuna resources of the North Atlantic, as it is the only nation in the zone specialising in fishing without drift-nets. In 1992, five thousand tonnes of tuna- about 20 per cent of the total catch- were caught by nets, while pole-and-line, caught entirely by the Spanish fleet, accounted for 18,000 tonnes or about 80 per cent.

Most studies have shown that, in the case of the Atlantic tuna fishery, the catch of dolphins and other whales is relatively low, compared to the 50-km `Wall of Death’ drift-nets used in the Pacific.

However, catches of shark can be significant. In 1991, French drift-nets reportedly caught 19,000 blue sharks, while drift-nets of all nations put together caught 2,000 dolphins. Among other `non-target’ species, such as other mammals, sea birds, bream and marlin (sword fish), are thresher, probable and blue sharks- fish that produce very few young, and, therefore, have very slow reproductive rates.

Also of concern is the wastage of tuna and other species caught by the drift-nets. Once caught, tuna and other fish, like marlin, die quickly and begin to rot. After a couple of hours in the net, the fish may get quite badly damaged. They are, therefore, discarded.

In the case of fish caught with lines, the quality is much better, as they are landed alive. Line-caught fish, therefore, receive a much higher price and are destined mainly for the fresh market. Tuna caught in nets is an inferior product and goes mainly for canning.

The `tuna war’ hit the headlines with the policing action by Greenpeace of measuring drift-nets. The French Navy protested and some gunshots narrowly missed the Greenpeace activists. This action also demonstrated the weaknesses of European control systems.

Palabras claves

pesca, conflicto

, Europa


There is more to the `tuna war’ than first meets the eye. British and other European fishermen are quick to stress that the issue is not merely one of using selective technology. They point to the frequent use of destructive fishing practices by the Spanish fleet. They complain that Spanish authorities turn a blind eye to what is happening in its own waters, though they cry `foul’ when it comes to international waters. Their stand was vindicated when Greenpeace observed, in August 1994, that at least three of a group of 10 boats working about eight miles off the Spanish coast were reportedly observed using nets larger than the regulation size of 2.5 km.

In Spain, the fishing industry, particularly in the north, is an important source of employment and wealth creation in a country where unemployment averages 25 per cent. The Spanish fishing fleet accounts for about 60 per cent of the total EU fleet. For the Spanish the stakes in the fishery are high. The French and other European nations feel threatened by the size of the Spanish fleet, and the implications of the entry of Spain into the EU. They feel that the war over tuna is but a way employed by the Spanish to claim greater access rights to tuna resources.

Given the excess fishing capacity within the EU and the depletion of resources within its waters, such conflicts over resources are likely to increase in the future.


Artículos y dossiers

O'RIORDAN, Brian, Putting up the barricades in. Samudra Report, 1994/12, 10 11

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