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 Gibraltar government is now insisting its environmental laws are upheld to stop the destruction of its marine environment.
In writing this article two statistics stayed with me 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. Whilst in a Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural History Society (GONHS) paper dated 1999 by its then general secretary and now Gibraltar’s Environment Minister, Dr John Cortes, he stated: “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 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 of 1958 and Spain is a signatory to this Convention. The waters in question are three miles off the Rock to 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 GSLP Liberal Government.
When Gibraltar’s new government was returned in December it fell on its feet by having Dr John Cortes on hand to step in as its environment minister. His qualifications and credentials are internationally recognized and as long as a Spanish bottom laid net. He was General Secretary of the respected NGO the Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural History Society, a post he had held since its creation in 1976 and before becoming a minister was the Director of the Gibraltar Botanic Garden since 1991. It is worth noting he was also a director of Spain’s Parque Natural de Los Alcornocales: so is highly respected on both sides of the border.
I asked Dr Cortes about the current dispute with Spain’s fishermen and the Nature Protection Act 1991: what specifically does it prohibit? 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, a campaign was started by Spanish fishermen to press the Gibraltar 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 the then Chief Minister Peter Caruana. It allowed Spanish fishing vessels to fish in Gibraltar’s waters using methods illegal under the Nature Protection Act 1991.
So what are the implications of the new Gibraltar Government rescinding the illegal 1999 ‘Joint Understanding’? Dr Cortes explained it now follows 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 3 months the enforcing of the Nature Protection Act 1991 has hit the news headlines as the Spanish fishing fleets have been banned from raping Gibraltar’s waters. This has led to illegal incursions by up to 12 fishing boats, sometimes escorted by a Guardia Civil 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 Spanish.
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.”
(The above article appeared in the London Progressive Journal on May 29 2012 and on various US environmental websites)