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AfricaTropical tuna targeted, Bloom complains of flagrant fraud by French vessels

Tropical tuna targeted, Bloom complains of flagrant fraud by French vessels

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Tuna // Press release by Bloom – On 31 May, BLOOM and  Blue Marine Foundation have lodged a complaint with the Public Prosecutor at the Paris judicial Court against all 21 vessels in the tropical tuna fishing fleet registered in France, for illegally switching off their AIS (Automatic Identification System) locator beacons.

French tropical tuna vessels are breaking the law

Switching off a geolocation instrument is prohibited by international, European and national law. Specifically, apart from small-scale fishing, all vessels must have their AIS beacons switched on at all times, both at sea and in port.(1) The French tropical tuna vessels are on average over 80 metres long and are all — without exception — breaking the law: between 1 January 2021 and 25 April 2023, these vessels switched off their beacons 37% to 72% of the time.(2) 

It is therefore impossible to know where these vessels are operating, sometimes for weeks at a time. This leaves them free to fish in prohibited areas, such as certain exclusive economic zones or marine protected areas. 

By lodging a complaint, BLOOM and  Blue Marine Foundation are seeking to put an end to this unacceptable situation and obtain full transparency on the fishing activities of French tuna shipowners. Illegal behaviors like these are not marginal. These 21 vessels represent only 0.4% of the French fleet but account for around 20% of the country’s annual catches.(3) 

Furthermore, European tuna vessels in African waters are subsidised to the tune of a dozen million euros a year under fishing agreements negotiated by the European Union. These ships have been plundering African waters with complete peace of mind since the end of the 1970s.(4) 

In addition European tuna fishing depends almost exclusively on the use of the highly controversial ‘fish aggregating devices’ (FADs). FADs are floating rafts that are responsible for the deaths of millions of immature tuna each year, which never get the chance to reproduce, as well as vulnerable and rare species such as sea turtles and sharks.(5) 

With our complaint, we are divulging that, as well as destroying sealife, these highly subsidised fishing vessels operate with complete disregard for the law.

Tropical tuna targeted, Bloom complains of flagrant fraud by French vessels
Example of four French vessels regularly switching off their AIS in the Atlantic Ocean. For instance, the STERENN (in blue), a tuna purse seiner belonging to the Compagnie française du thon océanique (CFTO), which disappears from radar the majority of the time. For ease of interpretation, this map only covers a few months for each of the vessels (see legend), not the entire period covered by our study, nor all the vessels concerned.

Total impunity for tuna fishers

This complaint echoes our report “Eyes wide shut”(6) released on the 6th of March 2023, in which we highlighted French Government’s total failure to enforce regulations for tuna vessels. This lack of oversight is why the European Commission opened an infringement procedure against France in June 2021, under Control Regulation 1224/2009 “establishing a Community control system for ensuring compliance with the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy”.(7) 

Today, we are providing further proof of the total impunity enjoyed by European industrial fishers: they undermine the environmental ambitions of democratic processes, destroy nature and coastal economies, trample on the law, and are never held to account by an administration that is complicit in their misdeeds.

A series of scandals revealed by BLOOM

These new revelations — based on an analysis of nearly four million lines of data supplied by the company Spire Global(8) — are irrefutable and add to the long list of misconducts carried out by European tropical tuna fishing fleets.

Since November 2022, we have revealed multiple scandals, highlighting the incredible power of French and Spanish business interests and their political allies to destroy life, the climate and democracy

  1. On 14 November 2022, BLOOM and ANTICOR warned of a case of transfer between the public and private sectors that was causing a clear conflict of interest in the tuna fishing sector.(9) The matter was referred to the National Financial Prosecutor’s Office (PNF), which opened an investigation into illegal acquisition of interests on 2 December 2022, which is still ongoing and for which we have given a statement;(10) 
  2. At a time when the overall framework for controlling fishing fleets is being renegotiated at a European level, this defector’s mission is crystal clear: to obtain an appalling change in the ‘margin of tolerance’, which would enable the European tuna fishing industry to massively increase its official catches and legitimise years of illegal catches and tax evasion;
  3. In 2015, France indeed granted an exemption to its tuna vessels, allowing them to exceed the regulatory ‘margin of tolerance’, which is why the European Commission opened infringement proceedings against France. Despite the deadlines having long passed and our repeated reminders, the European Commission is refusing, for the time being, to go any further and bring a case against France before the Court of Justice of the European Union. For its part, BLOOM has appealed to the Council of State to have the circular repealed;(11) 
  4. The infringement proceedings initiated by the European Commission were also prompted by France’s failure to monitor its tuna fleets. On 6 March, we published an unprecedented analysis showing that the French government had set absolutely no concrete control objectives for its tuna fisheries in 2022 and 2023. Following a favourable opinion from the Commission d’accès aux documents administratifs (Commission for access to administrative documents), we took the case to the Paris Administrative Court to demand transparency and enjoin the French administration to provide us with data on the French tuna fleets (satellite locations, monitoring data, etc.);(12) 
  5. In parallel with this sequence of regulations at the European level, another political sequence, this time in the Indian Ocean, has highlighted the hypocrisy of the European Union in African waters, where it is protecting, at all costs, the destructive practices of a handful of French and Spanish companies, in complete contradiction with the opening of its infringement proceedings against France;(13) 
  6. A few days before a crucial meeting of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) held in Mombasa (Kenya) from 3 to 5 February, BLOOM  published a shocking report highlighting the influence of lobbyists within official European Union delegations throughout twenty years of negotiations on tropical tuna in Africa, between 2002 and 2022. “The EU under the rule of tuna lobbies” highlights, for the first time and in data, the overwhelming dominance of industrial lobbies at the heart of public representation;(14) 
  7. While a historic resolution was adopted by the IOTC, instituting an annual 72-day ban on ‘fish aggregating devices’ (FADs), we revealed that the European Commission tried everything to sabotage the negotiations. They threatened Kenya, the historic spearhead of the fight against FADs, with the withdrawal of development aid if they continued to demand constraints that penalised European fishers. Our report “Lining up the ducks” explains how French and Spanish industrial interests lined up their political pawns;(15)  
  8. On 11 April 2023, the European Commission formally lodged its objection with the IOTC secretariat so that the resolution would not apply to its vessels,(16) and three days later, France — which has an extra seat on the IOTC thanks to its ‘Iles Éparses’ (a few uninhabited islets in the Mozambique Channel) — did the same.(17) To date, eight objections have been lodged, following relentless lobbying by the European Commission and the tuna lobbies. The resolution only applies to four European-owned vessels out of the fifty or so active in the area. The objective is simple: to reach 11 objections, the threshold that would allow the resolution to be cancelled outright;
  9. On 11 May 2023,  BLOOM lodged two appeals with the European Commission and the French Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs, Fisheries and Aquaculture (DGAMPA) to request the withdrawal of these disgraceful objections.(18) If these informal requests were to be refused, we could reserve the right to lodge contentious appeals, with the Court of Justice of the European Union and the Conseil d’État to have these objections withdrawn.

Justice as the only horizon… of justice!

Throughout this campaign, we have found nothing but closed doors as far as political leaders are concerned. Afraid of having to explain this disastrous situation: the French Permanent Representation has never found the time to receive us; the same goes for the European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevicius, and his Director-General Charlina Vitcheva, despite having been sought out  for several months.

We have therefore pinned our hopes on justice to put an end to the exceptions enjoyed by tuna fishers, on the fringes of the law and the rule of law.

The willful blindness of governments and European institutions to the malpractices of a handful of industrialists has led us to take legal action once again. By reporting the widespread extinction of AIS beacons by French tuna vessels, we are continuing the fight against these illegal practices and the unprecedented impunity enjoyed by industrial fishers.

At a time when biodiversity is collapsing and climate change is a matter of urgency, it is high time that the Member States and European institutions started to protect public interest and common goods, rather than calling for a break on environmental constraints.

On Tuesday 30 May 2023, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament agreed, after five years of negotiations and amendments, on a revision of the Control Regulation dating from 2009.(19) 

From the little information we have received, there is unfortunately little doubt that the French and Spanish tuna vessels have been fully satisfied, and our latest revelations clearly show that France is still very ostensibly letting its tropical tuna fleet do as it pleases, without any constraints. We encourage the European Commission to summon up the courage to take France to the European Court of Justice without further delay. Adopting regulations is not enough; they must be implemented. 

REFERENCES

(1) The provisions relating to automatic ship identification systems are set out in regulation V/19 of the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, known as the “SOLAS Convention”, itself supplemented by the regulations of the International Maritime Organisation, in particular paragraph 22 of Resolution A.1106 (29). These provisions have also been codified at European Union level. Article 10 of European Regulation 1224/2009 states: “In accordance with Annex II Part I point 3 of the Directive 2002/59/EC, a fishing vessel exceeding 15 metres’ length overall shall be fitted with and maintain in operation an automatic iden tification system which meets the performance standards drawn up by the International Maritime Organisation according to chapter V, Regulation 19, section 2.4.5 of the 1974 SOLAS Convention”.

(2) For each of the French vessels, we identified between 20 and 61 AIS beacon extinctions of more than 48 hours, for a total of 308 to 591 days.

(3) Data published by the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) in their annual reports on the European fishing fleet. Available at: https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/bba413d1-484c-11ed-92ed-01aa75ed71a1

(4) See list and amount of current agreements at: https://oceans-and-fisheries.ec.europa.eu/fisheries/international-agreements/sustainable-fisheries-partnership-agreements-sfpas_en

(5) See our study available at: https://bloomassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/tuna-war-games.pdf.  

(6) Available at: https://bloomassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/eyes-wide-shut.pdf

(7) Available at: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2009:343:0001:0050:fr:PDF

(8) Spire Global is the world leader in satellite vessel tracking. Their data is used, among other things, by the Global Fishing Watch platform (https://globalfishingwatch.org). 

(9) https://www.bloomassociation.org/en/conflicts-of-interest-and-environmental-destruction-bloom-and-anticor-sound-the-alarm/

(10) https://bloomassociation.org/conflit-dinterets-dans-la-peche-thoniere-le-parquet-national-financier-ouvre-une-enquete/

(11) See our study available at: https://bloomassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/eyes-wide-shut.pdf

(12) https://www.bloomassociation.org/en/bloom-sues-the-french-state-supportive-of-environmental-destruction-in-the-indian-ocean/

(13) See our studies, available at https://bloomassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/Lining-up-the-ducks_EN.pdf and https://bloomassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/tuna-war-games.pdf.  

(14) See our study, available at https://bloomassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/Les-lobbies-thoniers-font-la-loi.pdf

(15) See our study, available at https://bloomassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/The-EU-under-the-rule-of-tuna-lobbies.pdf.

(16) Available at: https://iotc.org/sites/default/files/documents/2023/04/Circular_2023-26_-_Communication_from_the_European_UnionE.pdf.

(17) Available at: https://iotc.org/sites/default/files/documents/2023/04/Circular_2023-28_-_Communication_from_FranceOTE.pdf.

(18) https://www.bloomassociation.org/en/appeal-iotc-objections/

(19) https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2023/05/31/council-strikes-deal-on-new-rules-to-combat-overfishing

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