Oceana has filmed and photographed the activities of fishing vessels operating from the ports of Nador, Alhucemas and Tangiers.
The Moroccan netters are overfishing the stocks of swordfish and killing 15,000 dolphins, pilot whales, sperm whales and other cetaceans, as well as 100,000 sharks per year.
As soon as the illegal fishing activity of the Italian and French drift netters was documented during the months of June and July, the Oceana Ranger research catamaran headed towards the Alboran Sea in order to obtain information regarding the operations of the last of the three largest drift netting fleets operating illegally in the Mediterranean. The Moroccan fleet is comprised of 150 vessels, equipped with the most modern technology as well as nets measuring up to 12 kilometres in length, and operates in the Southern Alboran Sea and the Gibraltar Strait.
These vessels are based mainly in the north African ports of Nador, Alhucemas and Tangiers. Measuring almost 15 meters in length and comprised of crews of between 8 to 14 men, these drift netters are capturing swordfish that are much smaller than the legally established length of 125 cm., and most of them have not even reached the reproductive maturity. The average size of the swordfish captured in the Mediterranean has decreased tremendously from 48 kgs. during the decade of the eighties to 10 kg. in 1997, coinciding with the proliferation of drift nets in this sea. The specimens caught by Moroccan drift netters documented by the Ranger this week are even smaller. This renewable resource is being pushed towards depletion.
Apart from contributing to the overexploitation of the targeted species, the swordfish, the Moroccan netters also cause the death of an enormous quantity of accidental captures, such as rays, sharks and ocean sunfish - a species which, by the way, feeds on jellyfish.
The Moroccan fleet's illegal nets also cause the death of thousands of cetaceans, such as dolphins, pilot whales, sperm whales and other species of cetaceans that get caught in the nets and drown, sometimes after an agonising struggle. In 2003, a WWF report estimated that approximately 15,000 specimens of striped and common dolphins are accidentally caught each year, as well as 100,000 shark specimens.
In the last few days, the Verdemar-Ecologistas en Accion organisation in Cádiz has reported the presence of dozens of Moroccan drift netters in the Straits of Gibraltar where, apart from the damage they cause, they also represent a great risk because they place their nets in areas of intense maritime traffic, and these may get caught in the propellers of other vessels and render them uncontrollable.
The Oceana Ranger research catamaran has been sailing the waters of the Alboran Sea since the beginning of August in order to graphically document the presence of these illegal Moroccan fishing vessels at sea and at port, and has witnessed the warnings made by the maritime traffic control tower in Tarifa to the ships crossing the Straits, making them aware of the dangers of crossing this area when the traffic zone is occupied by drift nets.
Oceana has, however, verified that the Moroccan netters are not only present in the Gibraltar area, but also throughout the Alboran Sea, where this illegal fishing gear is quite visible. Oceana has even video recorded and photographed the presence of at least six fishing vessels with illegal nets measuring over 10 kilometres in the areas close to the Alboran Island Marine Reserve. The areas near the banks of Xauen, Tofinño, Provençaux and Cabliers, all in international waters, are also considered "hot spots" for the activity of dozens of Moroccan netters.
During the easterly windstorms of the past few days, Oceana researchers have travelled by land to the Moroccan ports used as bases by the fleet of illegal netters, and have been able to photograph dozens of vessels waiting at port for the meteorological conditions to improve, while they repair hundreds of kilometres of nets that can be clearly seen in large piles on the decks of the vessels and on the docks, as well as spread out on the docks.
Drift nets were prohibited in the Mediterranean in 1997 by the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM), a regional fishery body of the FAO, through agreement 97/1, which is binding for all member countries belonging to this international organisation, and among them Morocco. Therefore, the activity of this fleet of netters can be considered IUU (illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing), the technical and official name of what is commonly known as pirate fishing.
Similarly, the ICCAT (the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna), an inter-governmental organisation dedicated to the regulation of the fishing of tuna and similar species, agreed in 1996 (resolution 96/15) and reiterated in 2001 and 2003, the international ban on drift nets.
Morocco's own legislation prohibits the use of drift nets with a length of over 2,5 kilometres through notification number 5458, dated the 20th of November of 1992, but obviously the Moroccan authorities are not enforcing their own prohibition.
The recent fisheries agreement between the European Union and Morocco stipulates that a portion of the 14 million Euros that will be granted to the Moroccan government for the development of their fisheries policies will be used to finance the removal of these illegal nets. This fact is quite ironic, however, if one takes into account that two European countries, France and Italy, are quite tolerant with their own fleets of illegal drift netters.
"Oceana demands that all governments, European or African, comply with international legislations which will allow for the recuperation of fishing resources and will prevent the massacre of tens of thousands of cetaceans, sharks and other accidental captures," declared Xavier Pastor, the director of Oceana in Europe, aboard the Ranger research catamaran.