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July 5, 2018

The Mediterranean: Illegal fishing in our backyard?

European hake (Merluccius merluccius) some of them probably juvenile at a fishmonger in Mazara del Vallo, Sicily, Italy.


Being one of the busiest seas in the world, the Mediterranean is also a sea where illicit fishing activities still go unnoticed and thus unpunished…until now.

Most of the cases of illegal fishing that make news in Europe seem to happen in far flung regions such as the Pacific or even the Antarctic. But such activities happen right under our noses.

Oceana has been able to identify numerous cases of possible infringements or potential illegal activity thanks to Global Fishing Watch, an online platform that shows vessels’ movements after analysing data sent out by their Automatic Identification Systems (AIS). These signals are collected by satellite and terrestrial receivers, and can be filtered to figure out if the boats were actually fishing or simply sailing.

Recent research revealed dozens of suspected cases of bottom trawlers operating in Fisheries Restricted Areas (FRAs) that have been designated and approved by all the countries around the Mediterranean to protect certain species or habitats. Most of these possible infringements occurred in the Sicily Channel and specifically east of Adventure Bank, where activities in the seabed are banned because it is a nursery spot for hake fish.

And here’s where it gets worrying. Mediterranean hake is the most overfished species in this region, with an average mortality several times above sustainable levels, which means there’s a high risk of total stock collapse in the Western Mediterranean.  If the fish caught outnumber those that are born and grow to adult age, the fish population will shrink over time, putting at risk the entire species in the region and the livelihoods depending on this fishery. Entering illegally in a fish breeding area and dragging a net over the seabed is probably the worst way to to ruin the future of the fish stock.

In June 2016, this area and other two FRAs were established in the Strait of Sicily to preserve spawning and nursery areas for hake and deep-sea water rose shrimp, in other they are essential fish habitats (EFHs) for these two species. The protection entered into force in October that year.

However, Global Fishing Watch data suggests that trawlers, mostly from Italy, have chosen to ignore these protective measures. Oceana notified the European Commission in June 2017 that it had detected over 13,000 hours of fishing activity by Italian-flagged bottom trawlers in the three FRAs. Despite our efforts, this situation continues today.

This week, Oceana campaigners will present these findings at a meeting of the FAO’s General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean. There, we’ll be asking to improve the monitoring of vessels authorized within FRAs, and to pay special attention to those vessels that use different fishing gears, and to adopt a sanctioning scheme to tackle illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

The Mediterranean is the most overfished sea in Europe, and most likely in the entire world. It is high time that Italy and the EU start to implement the protection they committed to two years ago, for the Mediterranean Sea is at stake.