The European Commission must take measures to ensure fishing vessels using gill nets always land with their gear, rather than leaving it at sea, biologist Dr Kevin Flannery has said.
Legislation on this issue must be backed up by enforcement to reduce the negative impact on the marine environment of unattended, lost and discarded nets, Flannery says.
“A certain amount of legislation has already been brought in since publication of a number of studies on this issue, but not all recommendations were implemented and there is inadequate control and enforcement,”he says.
“In addition to ensuring all gear is brought into port every time a vessel lands, there should also be cameras on haulers to monitor the by-catch as we have really no idea of the extent of this,”Flannery says.
As one major study, the so-called “Deepnet” report pointed out almost two decades ago, a fleet of vessels, mainly from Spain and with registration in Britain, Germany and other countries outside the EU such as Panama, began conducting a gillnet fishery from the mid-1990s on the continental slopes to the west of Britain and Ireland, north of Shetland, at Rockall and on the Hatton Bank.
“Deepnet” was a joint study, involving scientists from Norway, Britain and Ireland working with the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries, Britain’s Sea Fish Industry Authority and Joint Nature Conservation Committee, the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), the Marine Institute and BIM.
A report on the issue of abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear had previously been published in 2009 for the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) by Graeme Macfadyen, Tim Huntington and Rod Cappell of Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management Ltd.
Their series of recommendations pointed to the need for more research into the causes of lost and abandoned gear, the need for measures such as traceability, and a “carrot and stick” approach – given the difficulty of proving in some cases that gear had been abandoned deliberately.
At the time of the “Deepnet” report’s publication, it was estimated that up to 50 vessels were using gillnets in depths of between 200 and 1200 metres west of Ireland and Britain, with main target species being monkfish and deepwater sharks.
During the same time, stocks of deepwater sharks had fallen to less than 20 per cent of original levels in less than ten years.
The “Deepnet” report said that vessels were reported to be using up to 250km of gear, leaving the nets to fish unattended, and hauling every three to ten days during trips varying from a month to two months.
The report gave a conservative estimate of between 5800 and 8700km of net “constantly fishing at the same time”, and it said it was very likely that a large quantity of nets were lost, while there was also evidence of illegal dumping of sheet netting.
“The vessels are not capable of carrying their nets back to port and only the headline and footropes are brought ashore, while the net sheets are discarded, either bagged on board, burnt or dumped at sea,”it said.
The authors referred to a number of previous reports on the phenomenon of lost or “ghost” fishing gear, involving work on mitigation strategies. They noted that stock assessments were missing the catch and effort data from these fisheries, which were “totally unrestricted” as existing control and enforcement regulations had “little or no impact”.
The authors noted that there seemed to be a “deep reluctance” to talk about the fishery, and there was “an unwritten law of silence”.
Based largely on the results of the “Deepnet” report, an EU regulation introduced a ban on gillnetting in waters deeper than 200 m in 2006.
This regulation stipulated that Community vessels should not deploy gillnets, entangling nets or trammel nets at any position where the charted depth is greater than 200 m in ICES Divisions VIa, VIb, VIIb, VIIc, VIIj and VIIk and ICES Sub-area XII east of 270 W.
While that ban only applied until the end of 2006, the NEAFC also introduced these measures on a complimentary basis in the NEAFC regulatory area, and said the ban was “indefinite”, pending adoption of agreed management measures.
A derogation from the EU’s regulation was introduced in June 2006, allowing for the reopening of targeted gillnet fishing for hake (941/2006) in the aforementioned ICES sub-areas and divisions, in waters of charted depths less than 600 m.
An EU Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) working group on deep-sea gillnet fisheries in 2006 drew on “Deepnet’s” findings to make a series of detailed recommendations, including a ban on targeted fisheries for deepwater crab and shark.
Its recommendation on hake and monkfish fisheries stated nets should be limited to a maximum of 600 m.
General recommendations included stipulations that all vessels using gillnets landing more than ten tonnes of hake and monkfish in a calendar year must hold a special fixed net permit issued by the flag member state
The STECF report also recommended that it should be prohibited for any vessel using gillnets to catch and retain on board any aggregate quantity of these species in excess of 100 kg in any trip, unless the vessel holds a fixed net permit.
It said that any vessel holding a fixed net permit should record in the logbook or on a form provided by the member state the following information:
• The mesh size •
The nominal length of one net
• The number of nets in a fleet
• The total number of fleets deployed
• Position of each fleet deployed
• The soak time by fleet
• The depth
• Position and amount of any gear lost.
It also said that vessels with fixed net permits should only be permitted to land into designated ports ( a measure which already existed under the Hake Recovery Regulation). And it said the competent authorities should certify the length of gear carried by a vessel before leaving port to ensure that the vessel only has on board the legal limit of gears.
“Vessels should be allowed to carry on board a limited amount of reserve nets in case of loss or damage,”it said.
The STECF report said that all gears should be marked with unique identification tags provided by the competent authorities in the flag member state, based on experiences in Canada and US.
It recommended that vessels “where practical should remain in attendance of their gear at all times”, and defined this as being within 10 nautical miles of the vessel’s gear.
It said that vessels must comply with Annex V of the MARPOL Convention regarding the dumping of unwanted or damaged gear at sea, and vessels “should not be allowed to enter port without the same amount of gear on board as recorded in their logbook when leaving port”.
It said that “any discrepancy should be recorded showing the date, position and amount of any lost gear”, and member states should ensure that facilities are provided at ports for fishermen to dump discarded or damaged nets.
It also recommended that the naval services or other competent authorities should have the right to deem unattended gear as being abandoned if the gear is not properly marked as required under current EU regulations, or if there is no vessel in the vicinity and the buoy markings indicate that the owner has not been in the vicinity of the gear for more than 240 hours as verified by vessel monitoring systems data.
Retired BIM scientist Dr Peter Tyndall and Dr Kevin Flannery in Dingle say that experience shows there are ongoing issues, in spite of these reports, recommendations and new EU regulations.
“When deepwater gillnetting was banned or restricted, it move inshore, while some vessels involved in it moved to Brazil and Namibia, staying out for 100 days and freezing monkfish for the supermarket trade in Spain,”Flannery says.
“However, they were getting a lot of by-catch and monkfish was often rotten by the time gear was hauled, and this cast a negative cloud on the entire industry,”he says.
Dumping of unwanted gear is continuing in these waters, while there is also an ongoing issue with unattended nets, he says.
Tyndall recalls that when Spanish vessels were meant to be using 120mm, they were using 100mm mesh with “really light twine”.
“Eventually the Naval Service made a couple of arrests, Spain then lobbied in Europe and the EU reduced the mesh size to suit them,”he recalls.
Irish fishermen were so concerned at the time that Dr Tyndall conducted a hake gillnet mesh size selectivity trial in 2011.
“We showed that a lot of small hake could be caught with this mesh size, and it was a very destructive practise as the twine was so light that it was often disposed of at sea. We gave our findings to the Government here but it did nothing,”he says.
“Irish boats don’t dump gear like that, it has always been a foreign vessel problem, and who knows what is getting caught up in it,”he says.
“There really is not much point in the EU talking about conservation and biodiversity if it allows small mesh, or doesn’t enforce regulations relating to mesh size, and it seems Ireland is always afraid to complain to the EU,”Tyndall says.
“ Conservation of fish is less important to Irish officials than not offending EU members over blatantly destructive fishing practices,”he says.
The EU’s baseline size for fixed gears under a 2019 council regulation is 120mm in north-western waters. Bottom-set gillnets for directed fishing for hake may use 100mm, provided the gear is no more than 100 meshes deep, the total length of nets is not greater than 100km, and soak time is 24 hours.
Flannery says that volume of gillnet gear used, rather than mesh size, is the critical issue now.
“There should be a requirement to haul all gear when coming ashore, and regulations such as marking of gear should be enforced,”he says.
The European Fisheries Control Agency has recently leased three patrol vessels at a large cost to the European taxpayer.
“Perhaps these vessels could prove their worth on this gillnet issue,”he says.
Asked to provide a response, the European Commission said that “since the STECF report of 2006 and the Report of 2005, the EU has adopted a ban on the use of bottom-set gillnets at a depth greater than 200 meters in all EU waters”.
“A specific derogation is available for directed fishing for hake with bottom set gillnets at depth of 600 meters maximum. The Irish coast is among the zones covered by the derogation,”it said.
The Commission said that, for reference, the legislation for deep-sea species and the use of gillnets is:
The Technical Measures Regulation (EU) 2019/1241, adopted in 2019, which aims to foster conservation of fish stocks and marine life through technical measures. In this Regulation, Article 9(6) provides for the prohibition of bottom set gillnets at depth greater than 200 meters in EU waters, with a specific derogation for hake fisheries up to 600 meters.
The Deep-sea Access Regulation (EU) 2016/2336, adopted in 2016 which aims to improve the state of deep-sea stocks and vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems by setting out clear rules and limits for access to these fisheries and fishing grounds. In 2022, the EU closed 87 areas between 400-800 meters depths to fishing with bottom gears, including bottom set gillnets where they would have still been allowed due to the derogation
By Lorna Siggins