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AFRICA: “EU Subsidises Companies Guilty of Illegal Fishing”

Julio Godoy

BERLIN, May 24 2010 (IPS) - The European Union has for years been paying subsidies to the tune of one billion euro annually to industrial fishing companies based in its member states, including companies that have been caught fishing illegally in African waters.

Isabella Loevin: "The criminal behaviour of some fishing companies is a sufficient reason to be excluded from European subsidisation." Credit:

Isabella Loevin: "The criminal behaviour of some fishing companies is a sufficient reason to be excluded from European subsidisation." Credit:

“The fact that the EU pays subsidies to vessels fishing in African waters is already a problem because, by doing so, European taxpayers are exacerbating poor African people’s difficulty to sustain livelihoods,” Isabella Loevin, member of the European Parliament’s (EP) fisheries committee, told IPS.

“But that the subsidies go to European vessels violating international law is highly embarrassing and immoral,” Loevin added., a London-based watchdog group, compared records of 42 court convictions with data on EU fisheries subsidy payments. The study focused on two major EU fishing nations, Spain and France.

Vessels were caught violating national or international laws on fishing in the east central Atlantic Ocean region in African waters where, according to several environmental organisations, illegal fishing is the most rampant in the world.

One prominent beneficiary of EU subsidies is the Spanish fishing company Vidal Armadores, which received at least 2,8 million euros in financial support in 2004 and 2005. In 2004, vessels of Vidal Armadores were caught with some 24 tons of illegally fished patagonian toothfish.

Two years later a U.S. court sentenced the company’s owner, Antonio Vidal, to a suspended sentence of four years and a fine of 400,000 dollars.

The EU also paid substantial subsidies to the Mediterranean port of Sète, base of the French blue fin tuna (BFT) purse seiners. This French fleet is considered the largest operating in the Mediterranean Sea, including in Libyan waters. Environmental groups estimate that illegal overfishing of BFT in the Mediterranean has put the species on the brink of extinction.

The study reveals that 36 law-breaking vessels received more than 13.5 million euro in EU subsidies between 1994 and 2006. Five of the vessels on the list received more than one million euro each in EU subsidies.

The vessels’ owners have been convicted of serious infringements ranging from logbook misreporting and capturing fish below the minimum size to the use of illegal fishing gear and exceeding quotas.

Loevin said that the EP has questioned the European Commission (EC) on its subsidy policy for fisheries. “The EC position is that the national governments are responsible to check that their fishing companies receiving subsidies do not break international law.”

Jack Thurston, co-founder of, told IPS that previous studies have shown that many EU fisheries subsidies have directly contributed to the over-fishing of fish stocks. “But our study is the first one that draws the link between subsidies and illegal fishing.”

The study gives only “a snapshot of the problem of illegal fishing and the prevalence of EU subsidies being paid to vessels that have been convicted of illegal fishing, or that have gone on to break the law after having received subsidies,” Thurston told IPS.

Thurston said that the researchers collected the data “from government websites, press reports and court records. The prosecution information is not centralised and it has never been made public”.

“European governments should publish comprehensive lists of convictions for illegal fishing so that we can know who is breaking the law,” he urged. “This is the only way to ensure that public money is not going to fishers who break the laws that protect our precious fisheries.”

For Loevin there is no doubt that the criminal behaviour of some fishing companies is a sufficient reason to be excluded from European subsidisation.

For Western Sahara, the problem extends beyond subsidies. The European Parliament’s legal department has concluded that fishing vessels operating under European flags in Western Saharan waters violate international laws.

Under an agreement between the EU and Morocco, European vessels are allowed to fish in Western Sahara’s waters. But the EP legal service concluded in a recent study that “the Saharawi population of Western Sahara has never been consulted nor received any benefits from the exploitation of their own rich fisheries resources”.

The United Nations (UN) classifies the Western Sahara region as a non-self- governing territory. The territory is under dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front independence movement, with its Algeria-based Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic government.

According to a UN study of 2002, any economic activities that are not in accordance with the wishes and interests of the people of Western Sahara would be in violation of international law.

In their own analysis, the EP lawyers urged the EC to suspend or amend the EU-Morocco agreement to ensure that “EU-flagged vessels are excluded from the exploitation of the waters of Western Sahara”.

The analysis by the EP legal department was originally dated Jul 2009 but it remained under wraps until recently. EU parliamentarians have complained that the EC, in addition to holding back the findings, ignored the study for it failed to even place the issue on the agenda at the most recent yearly meeting with Morocco’s authorities in early Feb 2010.

“The EU places respect for international law at the heart of its foreign policy but has turned a blind eye in the case of Western Sahara,” Portuguese member of the EP Miguel Portas told IPS.

“The illegal and unethical EU fishing activities in Western Sahara’s waters are nothing short of theft and constitute implicit support for what most countries worldwide regard as an illegal occupation by Morocco in Western Sahara,” Portas added.

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