British fishermen losing out to aggressive Spanish fleets, profiting from EU subsidies

The fishing village of Mousehol, Cornwall

A family of Spanish fishing barons are profiting from EU subsidies and the secretive market in British fishing quotas, despite being blacklisted by environmental groups and charged with illegal fishing says a Sunday Times investigation.

Part of the newspaper’s recently launched campaign to save rapidly depleting British fish stocks, this is a story of how the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is failing to halt chronic overfishing in European oceans, and how British fishermen are losing out to an aggressive Spanish industry.

The story starts in a Truro court room, where in April this year according to the report, three directors of fishing company Hijos de Vidal Bandin pleaded guilty on behalf of their company to charges of falsifying ship log books to cover up illegal fishing activities.

The crimes took place in British waters; one boat, the Coyo Tercoco, was boarded by the Royal Navy in July 2010 near the Scilly Isles and the another boat, the O Genita, was stopped at a Scottish port. But although both boats fly under a British flag, the Sunday Times says their owners are Spanish, members of the Vidal family network, a fishing empire based in the port of Riberia in Northern Spain.

Borrowing heavily from an extensive Greenpeace investigation into the Vidal family’s fishing empire, published last October, the Sunday Times report suggests that despite their record of persistent illegal fishing, the family’s network of companies have received more than £12m in EU subsidies.

But according to the Sunday Times, Ramon Garcia Gallardo, a lawyer for Hijos de Vidal Bandin suggested the companies where not connected. He said the Hijos de Vidal Bandin  ’had no economic or legal connections with Vidal Armadores or the directors of that company.’ Vidal Armadores is a company identified by the Sunday Times as managing many of the families fishing operations. Gallardo did confirm that the Vidals were all members of the same extended family.

It is not just one family that is the problem. The biggest and most lucrative fishing industry in Europe, the Spanish fleet is more than twice the size of the UK’s, and has received over £3bn in fishing subsidies in the past twenty years.

The Sunday Times investigation established that over 30 boats sailing under British flags are also Spanish-owned, registering as British allegedly so they can purchase fish quotas originally allocated to British fisherman. The sale of British fishing quotas to large foreign fleets essentially means that a valuable national asset is controlled overseas.

First allocated in the 1980s, the original British recipients of fishing quotas have since been tempted to lease theirs to the highest bidder. Price speculation on the sale of private quotas has pushed the price so high that buying extra quotas is unthinkable for most small fishermen.

Now large Spanish industrial trawlers with the cash to pay are crowding smaller British boats out of their own waters. The Sunday Times report quotes Tom Appleby, a senior lecturer of law at West of England University, who calls the fish quota allocations a ‘botched privatisation’ which has created a shady and extortionate market, favouring industrial-sized, environmentally destructive trawlers over smaller, sustainable vessels. Britain’s inshore fleet (vessels under 10m long), despite making up over 77% of the UK fleet, control only 4% of the quotas.

The Sunday Times campaign is only a week old, but already there have been significant victories at the government-level, including a pledge by Environment secretary Caroline Spelman to publish a list of who owns Britain’s fishing quotas, including their nationality. It’s a change that conservationists have demanded for years, and a welcome move towards transparency in a market that has been characterised by secrecy.

From next year, we will have a powerful resource for holding those responsible for overfishing in UK waters to account.

But, whilst significant, the promise only goes so far. Over 25% of the world’s fish stocks are depleted or over-exploited; another 52% are fully exploited.

Read the Sunday Times report here.

This version of the story was first published by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

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