Oceana investigates french ports in the Mediterranean to uncover an illegal fleet of driftnetters

Reserchers visited every port in the South of France and detected at least 43 “thonaillers”

Press Release Date: August 20, 2013

Location: Madrid


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Researchers from the international marine conservation organisation Oceana carried out an expedition through the coasts of France and Monaco, travelling approximately 2000 kilometres and visiting 27 ports in four days. During the trip, they were able to document the presence of at least 43 of the largest vessels of the French driftnetter fleet that use nets called thonailles.

The representatives of this fleet admit that many of those vessels carry out their work ignoring the European Union legislation that has prohibited the use of driftnets longer than 2.5 km to capture tuna and swordfish since 2002.

Thirteen of the vessels located had nets onboard at the time of their detection with mesh size measuring from 10 to 20 cm. This mesh size is only used to capture species such as bluefin tuna or swordfish, although it is completely prohibited to do so with driftnets. Furthermore, the vast majority of the vessels had nets measuring much longer than the permitted length established by the European Union for any type of driftnet, some measuring up to 13 km. Often the ships did not have the nets themselves on deck, but the rest of the thonaille equipment was visible: net haulers, radar reflectors and strobe signal lights for the driftnets. Meanwhile, thonailles measuring dozens of kilometres in length were stored on the docks and were filmed and photographed by the researchers.

The Oceana team also documented the presence of dozens of small “trammeleters” similar to those found in other ports of Mediterranean countries. A few dozen of these French “trammeleters” can occasionally be used, during a short portion of the year, to illegally catch tuna with driftnets. The small boats, usually smaller than 7 meters in length and with a one or two-man crew, are used as a social cover-up for the two dozen larger vessels that actually use the “thonailles” intensively. Those nets quadruple the legal length established by the European Union.

The oceanographers who took part in the expedition, crew members of the research catamaran Ranger, carefully chose the dates of their trip to the ports. The long weekend for the national French holiday practically guaranteed the presence of entire fleet at port. Furthermore, the days coincided with the full moon of July. During a full moon, driftnet fishing is not carried out because the fish can detect and avoid the nets. This is why it was easy to locate the majority of the driftnetters at their ports.

Although the thonailles are centred around the already overfished stock of bluefin tuna, challenging the European prohibitions, the fishermen admit they also capture hundreds of endangered cetaceans every year. These marine mammals suffocate to death trapped in the nets. In particular, striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba) are often captured, but sometimes dead sperm whales are also found trapped in nets where the driftnetter fleet usually operates.

The fleet that uses “thonailles” operates in the Gulfs of Lyons and Genoa, as well as in northern Corsica, and even spreading their nets into the international cetacean sanctuary established by the governments of France, Italy and Monaco. The largest netters often use luxurious ports of the Cote d’Azur, such as Cannes, Saint Raphael, Nice, Montecarlo and even Monaco, as their bases.

“Along with the Italian illegal driftnetters, the French are the other European shipowners who openly challenge European community laws regarding this type of fishing, acting as if they can completely ignore the laws that others must uphold,” stated marine biologist Xavier Pastor, director of Oceana in Europe. “It’s about time that the European institutions are respected and the fishing resources and endangered species are given time to recover from the use of these destructive nets,” concludes Xavier Pastor.

The Council of Ministers of the European Union will meet in October to analyse the French and Italian use of driftnets which violates the European legislation and to settle the matter definitively.

The Spanish fleet that used this fishing gear was dismantled toward the end of the 1990’s, although they transferred their nets to Moroccan fishing vessels that now use them illegally in the Alboran Sea and the Straits of Gibraltar, and who later export the fish to Europe through the Spanish port of Algeciras.