Cornelis Vrolijk Fishing Vessel near Mauritania. 03/23/2012 © Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace

Between €9 - €23bn worldwide is lost every year to illegal fishing, much of it driven by organized crime. Before legislation came into force in 2011, an estimated €1.1bn worth of illegal fishing products was imported into the EU.

Illegal fishing is often linked to environmental crimes that damage marine habitats and animals; foster food insecurity in developing countries' human, drugs and arms trafficking, and forced labour on board fishing vessels.

But too little is being done to stop illegal fishing, and when action is taken, it's rarely enough. On March 10, a giant Dutch trawler was convicted of fishing illegally in a protected area off England's southwest coast. Royal Navy inspectors found over £400,000 of illegal mackerel stashed on the Frank Bonefaas, yet its owners were required to pay fines of just over £100,000, and were allowed to sell the fish. With such low penalties easily factored into business costs, it's no surprise that monster vessels can become serial offenders.

The Frank Bonefaas is part of the European Pelagic Freezer-Trawler Association (PFA). Five of its member vessels have been implicated in illegal fishing practices over the last three years and Greenpeace denounced several PFA vessels in a recent exposé of 20 examples of the most destructive vessels in Europe.

The UK-flagged Cornelis Vrolijk is another PFA vessel, the largest in the UK fleet, and controlled by the same Dutch parent company as the Frank Bonefaas. Incredibly, the Cornelis Vrolijk holds 23% of England’s fishing quota alone

The Cornelis Vrolijk is symbolic of what's wrong with the EU fishing quota system. All this is why Greenpeace is calling for the prioritisation of local, low impact fishing vessels, because they currently don't have enough fishing quota to survive. 

Elsewhere, large vessels are also favoured at the expense of low impact fishers and sustainable oceans. In Denmark, the fishing quota has resulted in just 105 vessels – 15% of the total fishing fleet – catching 90% of the fish.

Operation Sparrow

On March 12, the Spanish government launched 'Operation Sparrow' to investigate and crack down on illegal fishing, raiding the offices of notorious Spanish illegal fishing company Vidal Armadores, which Greenpeace exposed back in 2011. Since 1999, the company has racked up at least 11 fishing vessel arrests, seven convictions, €3 million in fines and three confiscated vessels.

Despite this, associated companies in the Vidal network were awarded around €16 million in fishing subsidies by the EU and the Spanish government. That's taxpayer's money: while we're all funding them, they trash the oceans.

The Spanish government’s crackdown has other significant implications: Spanish companies (and very possibly the Vidals) are accused of being behind fishing vessels (Kunlun, Songhua and Yongding) recently caught red-handed fishing illegally in Antarctic waters in the Southern Ocean. After the New Zealand authorities chased them, Interpol got involved and they were denounced by CCAMLR (the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which governs fishing in the Southern Ocean and had blacklisted two of the ships), the Kunlun was arrested on March 16, in Phuket, Thailand, with 180 tonnes of Antarctic toothfish on board.  

New Regime

In 2013, the EU agreed a new set of fishing rules under the CFP (Common Fisheries Policy), requiring member states to end overfishing and to promote a shift towards low-impact fishing.

There is much to do. Fines for illegal fishing must be large enough to deter companies from taking the risk. Market avenues for illegal and unsustainable catch must be closed down. Vessels with a track record of illegal fishing must be excluded from receiving fishing subsidies. Governments must now take bold steps to live up the new requirements they commit to under the new CFP and put a halt to overfishing, while giving right of way to those fishing with a low impact on our oceans.

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Why Europe's low impact fishermen should get more quota:

Celia Ojeda Martinez is an Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace Spain and Ariana Densham is an Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace UK.