A non-partisan journal of the left.

Spain’s fishing armada stopped from ‘raping’ Gibraltar’s waters

Mon 28th May 2012

In a 2010 report, Greenpeace stated: “The Spanish government has encouraged the development of excessive and destructive fishing practices such as ‘bottom trawling’, ‘purse seining’ and ‘long lining’. It has supported illegal ‘pirate’ fishing through fishing subsidies, and seems unwilling or unable to effectively prosecute Spanish companies who fish illegally.” It is that same Spanish fishing armada that has until recently ‘raped’ Gibraltar’s waters, which are British waters, and the Gibraltarian government is now insisting its environmental laws be upheld to stop the destruction of its marine environment.

In writing this article, I came across statistics that described the size of the problem facing Gibraltar. According to Greenpeace, if you were to line up all Spanish fishing vessels, bow to stern, they would stretch for a distance of 123 kilometres. Dr John Cortes, Former General Secretary of the Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural History Society (GONHS), and now Gibraltar’s Environment Minister stated in a paper he wrote in 1999: “The fact is that the average tramallo (bottom laid net) can be anything up to 1250 metres long, while Gibraltar's coastline is only some 14 kilometres in length. Sixty four per cent of that coastline is taken up for commercial purposes; leaving only 36 per cent [of] natural coastline where such fishing, if allowed, could realistically take place. A single net is equivalent to 11 per cent of our overall coastline…The fishing is neither sustainable nor sufficient.”

So what are Gibraltar’s waters? They are defined by the Geneva Convention (1958) of which is a signatory. The waters in question are three miles off the Rock to the east and south and a median line in the bay to the west on the other side of which sits the Spanish port of Algeciras. Gibraltar had to play catch up in the 1980s on its environmental laws, but in 1991 its parliament passed the Nature Protection Act which is the legislation currently being enforced by the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party (GSLP)- Gibraltar Liberal Party (GLP) coalition Government.

When Gibraltar’s new government was returned in December, it fell on its feet by having Dr John Cortes (pictured) on hand to step in as its environment minister. His qualifications and credentials are internationally recognised. He held the post of General Secretary of the GONHS since its creation in 1976 and before becoming Environmental minister, he was the Director of the Gibraltar Botanic Garden. It is also worth noting that Dr Cortes was a director of Spain’s Parque Natural de Los Alcornocales. As such, he is well respected on both sides of the border.

I asked Dr Cortes about the current dispute with Spain’s fishermen and what the Nature Protection Act (1991) specifically prohibits? The minister stated: “It specifically prohibits the use of ‘seine’ and ‘gill’ nets in British Gibraltar Territorial Waters. Seabed raking and the use of artificial lights for attracting fish are also illegal under the aforementioned Act. These methods, including drift nets as well as long lines are used by Spanish fishermen in our waters.”

These measures were enacted in 1991 in order to safeguard marine habitats and species within Gibraltar’s waters that were being negatively affected by commercial fishing activities. Dr Cortes added: “In order to further protect the marine biodiversity, the Southern Waters of Gibraltar were designated as a Site of Community Importance under the EU’s Habitats Directive. This designation was approved by the Commission in July 2006.”

Between 1991 and 1997, the Act was enforced by the Royal Gibraltar Police. While some fishing occurred, this was without sanction and the Police effected arrests and prosecutions on a number of occasions. It was following such an arrest that a campaign was started by Spanish fishermen to lobby the Gibraltarian Government to allow them to fish. In 1999, after the fishermen blockaded the Gibraltar frontier, a ‘Joint Understanding’ was accepted by the fishing federations of the border town of La Línea as well as Algeciras across the bay and by Gibraltar’s former Chief Minister, Peter Caruana. It allowed Spanish vessels to fish in Gibraltar’s waters using methods deemed illegal under the Nature Protection Act (1991).

So what are the implications of the new Gibraltar Government now rescinding the ‘illegal’ 1999 ‘Joint Understanding’? Dr Cortes that the Royal Gibraltar Police, who are not controlled by the government, are free to use their own discretion in enforcing applicable laws that prevent the use of illegal fishing methods under the Nature Protection Act (1991).

The minister continued: “As circumstantial evidence strongly indicates that marine resources continue to decline, and in keeping with the precautionary principle, a revised system for the protection of marine resources, which will include regulation, is currently being developed by my ministry for the Government of Gibraltar.”

During the past three months, the enforcement of the Nature Protection Act has hit the news headlines as the Spanish fishing fleets have been banned from fishing in Gibraltar’s waters. This has led to illegal incursions by up to 12 fishing boats, sometimes escorted by a Guardia Civil (Spanish gendarmerie) armed patrol boat, to which the Royal Gibraltar Police or Royal Navy have had to respond. The fishing vessels had deployed seine nets and used artificial light lures: both prohibited under Gibraltar law. It is against this background that discussions have taken place between the Government of Gibraltar and the fishing confraternities of La Línea and Algeciras regarding commercial fishing within Gibraltar’s waters. Dr Cortes noted: “These discussions took place as a direct result of the Gibraltar Government rescinding the 1999 ‘Joint Understanding’ and the impact that this would have on the ability of the local Spanish fleets to continue fishing.”

The fishing grounds around Gibraltar have been over exploited and the fishermen themselves accept that catches have declined seriously. It is ironic that as a result, protected areas, including no-fishing zones and time restrictions, have been applied by the Spanish authorities in their own waters and would be extended to Gibraltar if its British waters were in Spanish hands.

On a final note, Dr Cortes stated: “The presence of rocky reefs in Gibraltar’s territorial waters is attractive both to fish and to fishermen. This is one of the reasons why Gibraltar has created this protected area, one of the considerations being to provide refuge, feeding and breeding opportunities for fish, something which will be of benefit to fishermen in adjacent areas, as well as to all marine life.”
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