I don’t know what I expected notorious Spanish fishing barons to look like. Strapping, with deep tans and fancy wrist watches? Or sinewy, wiry and sly? In any case, the four defendants (three men and one woman) looked like fairly normal folk, if a little perplexed by the throngs of local and national media wielding cameras and questions outside the Truro Courthouse in Cornwall.
They’d come to the UK to face 9 serious counts of illegal fishing, including: lying about the size of their catches, manipulating quotas by swapping fish from one boat to another, and abusing the system for weighing fish at sea.
Justice Graham Cottle said he was determined to create a deterrent and that he did, slapping over £1.62m worth of penalties on the four; the biggest court order in British maritime history.
So why was Greenpeace in court? Because this is just the latest chapter in what we’ll call “the Vidal dodgy fishing saga.” Two of the defendants who were in court in Truro are members of a very shady, very rich family of Spanish fishing barons.
Last October, following a lengthy investigation, Greenpeace exposed the Vidals’ 10 year illegal fishing history. We revealed how a vast network of fishing companies and vessels have repeatedly flouted fishing rules around the world, racking up at least six convictions and getting six vessels blacklisted, all whilst being bankrolled by the European taxpayer to the tune of over £12.5 million in fishing subsidies.
And yet the clan continues to fish – under UK flags, with UK quota, propped up with EU taxpayers’ money.
The offending in the Truro case was described by the judge as ‘a systematic, repeated and cynical abuse of the EU fishing quota system’ where the targeted fish, hake, was “at the time a fish species at the verge of collapse and observance of quotas was seen as crucial to its survival”.
Whilst the massive fine handed down is encouraging, and shows that UK authorities are serious about punishing and deterring illegal fishing, the case is just a symptom of a wider EU fishing system which is broken. Given that these fishermen were operating on UK quota, in UK waters and had received millions in subsidies, little of the benefits would ever have fed back into the UK economy.
The system is skewed in favour of powerful, industrial scale fishing companies where as it should be supporting our inshore low impact fishermen. They make up 77% of the UK fleet but get access to only 4% of the UK’s quota.
That’s why Greenpeace’s alliance with inshore fishermen in the UK is so important, and why we are at a crucial moment in history as our fisheries minister and MEPs negotiate a new set of European fishing rules. They must support giving priority access to fish to those that fish in the least damaging ways.
So what’s left for the Vidals? Well, they flew back to Spain last night where they will continue to fish, hopefully on the right side of the law from now on.
I hope not to have to return to court to witness more fishing barons get sentenced, but given that illegal fishing is a form of organised crime, and this is one of the most serious threats to healthy fish stocks and a viable fishing industry, I don’t hold my breath. We just have to look to Scotland to see that similar things are happening just across our border.
I hope this case sends a message to the UK fisheries minister that it’s the inshore, low impact sector that needs more quota and government support. They have a reason to look after their local patch, and with a bit of help, will ensure the rich British tradition of fishing will survive into the future.
Ariana Densham is an oceans campaigner in Greenpeace UK's London office