On-board Diary: East winds in the Straits

Author: Xavier Pastor
Date: August 17, 2007



We’ve been patrolling the banks at night located southeast of Alboran Island that separate the undersea canal through which large pelagic species migrate, such as the swordfish. That’s where the Moroccan driftnetters, based in ports such as Nador or Alhucemas, usually set their driftnets. But today the weather was bad, and no one went out to fish. We’ve decided to leave the area and head quickly towards the Straits. The wind has changed from west to east, so we’re comfortably pushed towards the Atlantic. We hoist the Genoa sail, and that gives us more speed and stability. We sail comfortably in spite of the large waves. The Ranger sails well in rough seas. One feels safe and not at the complete mercy of the waves.

We head towards the narrowest part of the Straits, sailing over the Tofio Bank and avoid entering the 12 miles of Moroccan territorial waters. We have everything in order and we can’t be reproached for anything we’ve done, but even so, we prefer to avoid any bureaucratic obstacles that would arise from a chance meeting with the Royal Navy. A few weeks ago, the Moroccan government approved a law that Oceana and WWF had been asking of them for years: the formalisation of a plan to eliminate driftnets, in accordance to that which is established by the UN, ICCAT, the GFCM, ACCOBAMS and other organisms of which Morocco is a member. The marine conservation organisations have applauded Moroccan authorities, even though the prohibition will not come into effect until January 2009. Meanwhile, the fleet of at least 150 driftnetters must be converted or dismantled. For this, the EU is contributing €1.25M per year and the United States is contributing with part of the $700M approved this week by their Congress as global contribution for environmental improvements in Moroccan agriculture and fishery.

If no driftnetters are to be found in the Alboran Sea and the Straits of Gibraltar within one year and a half, it is necessary for Morocco to implement a step by step deactivation plan for this fleet and to make it known to the public so it can be supervised. These things don't happen overnight. It is unthinkable that on December 31, 2008, there will be almost 200 driftnetters in operation, and the next day they will all be gone. Furthermore, those of us -from Oceana today, and using other uniforms in the past- who have been following the evolution of the driftnetter fleets in the Mediterranean for 15 years have enough experience to know how the shipowners try to take advantage of these processes, pocketing the money from subsidies and continuing to use the prohibited nets unpunished. It's not easy to forget the case of two of the EU’s founding countries: Italy (€200M swindled out of European and Italian taxpayer's hands and a fleet of driftnetters that is still largely active) or France (that has used IFOP funds for the construction of new vessels dedicated to illegally fishing young bluefin tuna, albacore and swordfish).

Due to this, and in spite of the Moroccan government’s positive legislative actions, it is essential that organisations such as Oceana continue to keep an eye on the use of driftnets until they are completely eliminated. It must not be forgotten that, according to WWF estimates, the Moroccan fleet in the Alboran Sea kills approximately 16,000 striped and common dolphins each year, as well as sperm whales, common rorcuals, fin whales, pilot whales, sea turtles… and dozens of thousands of ocean sun fish and elasmobranchs (sharks and rays).

We must also remember that only 2% of all the swordfish caught by this fleet is consumed in Morocco. The remaining 98% is exported, 95% of which is allocated to Spanish companies and three quarters of which is re-exported to Italy. An “exceptionally ethical” business. Spanish businessmen buy fish captured with fishing tackle that is illegal in Spain and the EU, promoting illegal fishing and unfair competition for the Spanish longliners that comply (at least concerning this issue) with international laws. A government like Zapatero’s, who champions the ethical meaning of politics, should immediately end the business activity that a few scoundrels carry out by importing fish captured with tackle that is prohibited by the UN and the EU, as well as the business activities of those who tolerate it. Just as importing fishery products captured with driftnets in other member States is forbidden in Spain, this policy should be applied to all other exporters. It is not ethically acceptable that on the one hand, in public, the authorities are totally against this tackle, and on the other hand they are making its elimination difficult through market demand.

The Ranger crossed the Straits in the afternoon and is entering the Atlantic. The east wind is still picking up and we don’t think the driftnetters based in Tangiers will go out to fish where they usually do: directly in the area where traffic in the Straits of Gibraltar is separated and where the very long nets pose a serious threat to navigation, apart from other environmental considerations.

We pass Ceuta and turn towards the south. The crew forms on deck and salutes while laughing as we pass Perejil Island, as they wonder how two government representatives like Federico Trillo and his Moroccan counterpart could be so dim-witted and have absolutely no sense of the ridiculous. The wind is still getting stronger, but the African coast protects us from its blows. We’ll keep watch all night long, but we don’t think there are many possibilities they will go out to fish. We left Tangiers to the north and now we pass some Moroccan trawlers coming from the south, heading towards the port for shelter.