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July 16, 2006

Expedition in search of french netters


13th July

Today, Xavier Pastor and I have met in Narbonne (France), where we will begin our adventure by touring the French Mediterranean coast in order to document the activities of the French drift netters, also known as “thonaille” or “courantille volante.” Xavier came by land from the port of Roses in Gerona, where he left part of the crew of the Ranger installing a new davit crane on the stern which will help us pull in and transport the Zodiac and use our oceanographic instruments, such as the Remote Operated Vehicle robot and the Van Veen bottom grab.

After personally verifying the blatant infringement of the international laws against the use of drift nets which, in Italy, is going on with complete impunity, in France, we need to document another one of the European government’s pending subjects regarding fishing methods.

These boats have special fishing permits (PSS) granted by the French government which allows them to use nets that are “supposedly” fixed to a floating anchor for tuna fishing (this is where the French term “thonaille” comes from), limiting its length to one mile per person aboard, which exceeds the limit of 2,5 Km. established by the European legislation.

Taking into account that these are illegal drift nets, we begin our trip by following the coastal roads, from port to port, this time without the Ranger, and with two goals in mind: to document the thonaille activity on the French coast and to confirm that these nets are in no way the descendants of the traditional and ancestral fishing methods as their supporters would have us believe, but are simply another type of illegal drift net.

We drive toward Sète, one of the most important fishing ports in the Mediterranean, where we hope to find part of the fleet.

We had quite a confusing day, finding only one thonailler in the port at Sète, and it didn’t appear to be operative. We thought we would see more movement, since the moon is almost full, and it is during those nights that the thonaillers stop their activity, and must be moored at port. During the month of July, the fishing activity moves toward the western coast of the Gulf of Lyon, so maybe this weekend they are still moored in that area, waiting for the darker nights to arrive.

In Marseille, we saw the Alcyone, the catamaran invented by Jacques Cousteau, and at 11 pm, we arrived at La Ciotat, just in time for the July 14th Bastille Day fireworks.

July 14th

Today we have inspected the ports of La Ciotat, Bandol, Toulon, Giens, St. Mandrier, Hyeres and a few other less important ones. At last we have started to observe some activity. In most of the ports, we have spotted the typical thonailliers with large decks, with two reel bow winches and equipped with radar reflectors buoys used in order to mark the position of the thonaille. Some had nets on deck or on the dock. We estimated the length of the nets and verified that these exceeded the 2,5 Km. limit established by the EU legislation, but were, of course, within the French legislation’s 9,2 Km. limit.

In Saint Mandrier, we saw the thonailler Cassalex and its crew. At first, we were disappointed to find the thonaille they had aboard must not have been over 1,5 Km. in length, but suddenly Xavier spotted a van driving around the docks and which finally stopped next to the ship. We moved closer to the van to see what it contained and saw it was completely full of thonaille (approx 6 km).

After an exceedingly tiring day, we stopped in Hyeres at night, in order to find a place to rest and analyse the data we collected during the day.

July 15th

As we get near the most famous ports of the Côte d’Azur, it becomes more and more difficult to travel by road, due to the heavy weekend traffic of the Bastille Day celebrations, the French national holiday, with tourists headed toward the beaches. The heat is insufferable and thanks to our sandwiches and cameras, we look like tourists, too. It seems a bit surreal to be travelling this road, the famous Croissette in Cannes, looking for driftneters.

As soon as we arrive in the port of Saint Raphael, we find the thonailler Orchidée II, which appeared in an article in the French newspaper Le Figaro written in defence of the thonaille, approximately one month ago, where this ship was described as a “traditional fishing vessel” which was being victimised by European legislation. We were surprised to find that the Orchidée II was a splendid twin-hulled vessel, completely refurbished and renovated (probably thanks to European Union IFOP funds which are distributed as subsidies by the PACA Administrative Region). We were even more surprised when we spotted one of the members of the crew aboard an equally splendid BMW. And what we found to be even more offensive, kilometres and kilometres of driftnets on the dock next to the ship.

July 16th

Today, our trip has ended. Our search has practically lead us to the Italian border again, having found thonaillers docked even in the most exclusive and elegant marinas in Monte Carlo. On our way back West, we stopped in Palavas les Flots. We read an article in one of the local government’s magazines which defended the thonaille due to its ancestral tradition, and where the same story is repeated for the hundredth time, “100 ships, 300 families depend on this.” In the article, two thonaillers are mentioned, the “Jeannette” and the “Roger Fifi,” so we decided to inspect them with our own eyes. The “Jeannette” was similar to the other ships we documented, but the “Roger Fifi” was a small boat measuring a scarce 5 meters in length and with only one reel whinch; a trammeller which could participate only occasionally in the thonaille. Taking into account that the total number of thonaillers we observed was approximately 40, the “Roger Fifi” helped us to understand that the figures presented by the defenders of this type of fishing were , and that this type of fishing is compatible with other types of net fishing, which in no way constitutes the main livelihood of this fleet.

As we approached Roses, where the Ranger awaits us, we analyse the last few days. Xavier is tired of driving, but satisfied that he found just what he expected to find. I, on the other hand, cannot help but feel surprised.

We reached the Ranger at midnight, and almost everyone was asleep, except a straggler or two and Carlos napping on the stern. This time, the Ranger feels like a familiar place to me. Tomorrow, we are headed south.