Let science be leading in decisionmaking about pulse fishery
Opinion 14-1-2019 | Christien Absil, director Good Fish Foundation, Floris van Hest, director North Sea Foundation en Irene Kingma, director Dutch Elasmobranch Society
Are you for or against pulse fishing? This question has repeatedly been asked since the European Parliament voted in favour of a total ban on the Dutch fishing method, earlier this year. It appears to be a simple yes-no question, but the answer is in fact more complex. Our support for pulse fishing depends on sound scientific research into the possible negative effects, and the results of that research are not expected until the end of 2019.
Is pulse fishing the solution for improved sustainability in the fishing sector, as claimed by Dutch fishermen? Or are French environmental groups right, and does fishing using electricity in fact cause irreparable damage to marine flora and fauna? We do not know the answer because it has not yet been thoroughly investigated. Nonetheless, Europe is threatening to call curtains for this innovative fishing technique. The debate has become obfuscated and politicised in a manner that has nothing to do with the technique itself.
The pulse fishing technique uses short bursts of electricity that make flatfish leap from the seabed, after which they can be caught in a dragnet. One of the advantages is that the seabed is disrupted far less than with other forms of bottom fishing. The traditional beam trawler, for example, drags heavy chains across the seabed, disrupting the ecosystem. Moreover, the fishing gear for pulse fishing is far lighter, reducing fuel consumption.
On the other hand, there are many questions about the risks of the electrical pulse. Can long-term exposure to electricity damage seabed life? And how do fish species that are sensitive to electricity respond? Sharks and rays, for example use electricity to hunt for food; will they suffer harm as a result?
This uncertainty combined with the gut feeling experienced by many people that mixing water and electricity is extremely dangerous has proved effective. In January 2018, the European Parliament voted in favour of a total ban on pulse fishing, to the utter dismay of Dutch fishermen, who are set to lose millions.
Nonetheless, this European decision was not a complete surprise. Fishing with electricity is itself forbidden and the Dutch fishermen have been making use of a temporary exemption, intended for experimental studies. The exemption was intended for five percent of the cutter fleet, subject to the proviso that the fishermen would take part in a study into the effects of the method.
Intensive Dutch lobbying resulted in an exemption for one in three vessels, and the Dutch cutter fleet switched en masse to pulse fishing. The fishermen and the government took the risk that it would turn out all right in the end, with the additional research; after all the European Commission allowed it all to go ahead, and asked no questions. In the meantime, the fishermen were earning good money from pulse fishing, an operation that was in fact partially subsidised by Dutch and European government grants.
And as for the research, it amounted to practically nothing. A large-scale research project was eventually organised in collaboration with Wageningen Marine Research once French fishermen started expressing their criticism, and other EU countries began to ask difficult questions. However, the results of this project are not expected until the end of 2019 and we now find ourselves in a Kafkaesque European process. There is a possibility that some of the permits will be upheld, but it is abundantly clear that heavy blows are set to fall, and there is even a risk that the technique will be banned completely, so that even further research will no longer be possible.
That would be a dreadful waste. Specifically in the oceans where the interests of nature and fishing are sometimes so diametrically opposed, decisions should surely be taken on the basis of the best available scientific evidence. In the same way that government is required to follow science in setting the annual catch quotas for fish, so can science also provide conclusive answers on the merits of pulse fishing. If we are to achieve the vitally necessary improvements in sustainability in the fishing sector, then we must invest in innovation and the related research.
At the very least, politicians should await the results of the large-scale research project that will be concluded by next spring, before taking an irreversible decision on pulse fishing. We would be setting a particularly poor precedent if a potentially sustainable technique were to be written off on the basis of gut feelings.
Christien Absil, director Good Fish Foundation, Floris van Hest, director North Sea Foundation en Irene Kingma, director Dutch Elasmobranch Society