The Friday before Christmas we revealed the hidden costs of European fisheries at two ports, IJmuiden in the Netherlands and Bremerhaven in Germany, by targeting some of the enormous supertrawlers represented by the Pelagic Freezer-trawler Association (PFA). Activists painted the different amounts of taxpayer’s money used to keep these monstrous vessels in business on the hull of the ships. These huge floating fish factories catch, process and freeze giant quantities of fish: up to 300,000 kilograms per day; yet they continue to receive huge subsidies. For example, the huge 144-metre long vessel Annelies Ilena cost European taxpayers 28 million euro in the last five years.
These figures come from a report published by the Dutch economic research bureau Profundo last week. EU taxpayers have paid 142 million euro for the modernisation of PFA vessels and for their access to countries like Morocco and Mauritania to allow fishing within their waters during the last five years. But another part of this money is simply going up in smoke, due to the fact that these oil-guzzling factory vessels do not have to pay taxes on the fuel they use. Where you and I have to pay a large amount of duty each time we fill up our car or motorcycle with petrol (even if it is an energy efficient one), these vessels can hunt down the last remaining fish stocks all around the globe and do not have to worry about fuel taxes.
When confronted with our protest, the spokesperson of the Pelagic Freezer-trawler Association, Mr van Balsfoort, responded irritably, saying that we should not target their ships but should instead complain to the EU in Brussels when we have a problem with their fishing practices.
He is right. It’s the European Union that makes this grotesque tax abuse possible. Currently, the European policy that should regulate fisheries, called the Common Fisheries Policy, or CFP, is being reformed, something that happens only once every ten years. Of course we have to make sure that the current policy, which is responsible for about three quarters of the European fish stocks being overfished, will be reformed in a way that ensures that fish stocks can recover.
But apart from complaining, we are also bearing witness and show the world what is happening at sea. By taking action against the destruction of sensitive deep sea habitats by EU-funded fishing vessels, we questioned how fisheries subsidies are going to criminals that fish illegally, and last Friday we made sure that people throughout Europe became aware of the millions of tax Euros that are invested in exporting overcapacity of our obese fishing fleet to poor countries - just as the PFA does.
That’s why we were in IJmuiden and Bremerhaven: to show how this tax abuse looks like in real life. Mr. van Balsfoort can complain about the fact that we target their vessels instead of the bureaucrats in the European Commission, but he has nothing to complain about. The companies that are part of the PFA have pocketed millions and millions of Euros in subsidies over the years. If they were real entrepreneurs, they would not be depending on government handouts for keeping their businesses alive. They would go for a level playing field in which also smaller fishermen have a chance to earn a living from the sea.
Pavel Klinckhamers is Oceans campaigner with Greenpeace Netherlands