Various techniques involving drift nets, a variety of lines including troll-lines, pole-lines, surface and mid-water longlines, and pelagic trawls are used to catch tuna. Pelagic trawls are nets in the form of a tunnel, towed by one or two boats, in mid-water and sometimes near the surface. Lines equipped with hooks carrying bait or lures may also be either dragged from a vessel, left to drift near the surface or under the water. The advantage of lines is that they do not result in the same destructive by-catch associated with the use of drift nets. These techniques, however, are not as productive as drift nets. And, although tuna caught by line can fetch a higher price because it is generally of better quality, these techniques require substantial crews, thus increasing production costs. While more selective regarding by-catches, surface lines have the disadvantage of mostly catching young tuna fish. Lines which drift in mid-water generally catch adult fish but require specific know-how possessed by few EU fishermen at the moment.
The danger, therefore, was that since drift nets are more effective than lines, commercial pressure would induce the 500 or so vessels which use troll-lines and pole-lines in the Atlantic fisheries to switch techniques. In the Mediterranean, the root of the problem and its symptoms were, as we shall see, different. Undoubtedly, however, these would also have been made worse had a decision not been taken.
This is why the status quo was no longer sustainable. An increase in driftnetters in the Atlantic and no change in the current fishing pattern in the Mediterranean would have been disastrous on several counts:
In the Atlantic, the number of vessels using drift nets could have increased six-fold to around 600, increasing the already unacceptable levels of by-catches. Scientific studies found that catches in the north-Atlantic tuna fishery were made up of 48 different species and in the Mediterranean swordfish fishery of 74 species. Depending on the area, incidental catches included dolphins, whales, turtles and marine birds.
While albacore tuna stocks in the Atlantic fisheries, as things stand, are not overexploited, given the better fishing performance of drift nets, an increase in their numbers could have had grave consequences for tuna stocks.
While there was no direct threat of an increase in the number of netters in the Mediterranean, there is already significant fishing pressure caused by the lack of profitability of swordfish fisheries using nets of 2.5km, which is the legally required length. But, it has been noted that to improve earnings, much longer nets are being used. In the absence of scientific data on the state of swordfish stocks and, above all, on the level and composition of by-catches due to drift nets in this area, the only alternative was to ban the technique. Failure to act would have been biologically and economically risky.
Indecision would not have improved the economic difficulties already experienced by Italian netters and could have created new ones for Atlantic fishermen. Overfishing, stock depletion and loss of earnings could soon have resulted from an increase in drift net use. The initial increase in production that would have followed would have increased fishermen's income, but only for a short period of time. Past experience shows that overfishing leads to stock depletion and loss of income leading to more fishing which, combined, are the surest way of destroying the fishery. The loss of earnings would have been compounded by the already lower price paid for tuna caught in drift nets as it is of lower quality than tuna caught by line.
It is also likely that the economic prospects of the drift net tuna fishery would have deteriorated because of public concern about its environmental impact. Nowadays public opinion is much more aware of environmental issues and is no longer prepared to tolerate the destruction of wildlife in the pursuit of economic activities, especially when the species affected are threatened or when they are popular with the public. This is the case with such species as dolphins and whales which are most affected by drift net fishing. Had nothing been done some consumers, both inside and outside the Union, might have refused to buy products from Member States using drift nets. Such a situation could have had more serious economic and social consequences for the fishing industry than a ban on drift nets.
The potential for conflict among fishermen would have seriously been increased. Competition for space on the fishing grounds would have intensified among driftnetters and between driftnetters and vessels using different techniques. Given their lengths, these nets are invasive. They can hinder the operations of other netters and of vessels using other techniques and even prevent them from operating at all in large areas. This has already led to serious incidents at sea between fishermen in the past.
Having weighed all these factors, EU Ministers decided that, in the medium term, given the potential for serious biological, economic and social problems, the status-quo would have harmed the fishing sector far more than a ban.