EU Bans Controversial Practice of ‘Pulse Fishing’

The practice, banned in most countries since the 90s, temporarily paralyses fish by shooting a pulse of electricity through the water.
17 January 2018, 5:25pm
Photo by Frederick Florin / Getty Images

A long-fought battle between French and Dutch fishermen was settled on Tuesday when the European Union voted to end the controversial practice of pulse fishing in European waters.

As its name suggests, electric pulse fishing temporarily paralyses fish by shooting a pulse of electricity through the water just above the seabed, making it easier to catch the fish in a trawler net. It’s a technique primarily used for rousing flatfish—like sole and fluke—which hide in the sandy seabed, which are otherwise typically caught by dragging heavy “tickler chains” or other trawlers through the ocean floor.

Pulse fishing been banned in most countries, including the EU, since the early 1990s. The Dutch, however, have been the primary recipients of special authorisation to use the technique for the past decade under the premise of evaluating the environmental impacts of the practice. The decision on Tuesday officially eliminates any chance at renewing those exceptions. According to the Associate Press, the Netherlands described the ban as “incomprehensible.”

Pulse fishing had been touted by the commercial fishing industry as a way to reduce fuel consumption and seabed disturbance in the flatfish fishing industry, while simultaneously increasing yields. Electric trawling boats can cruise at a slower speed and without the weight of heavy tickler chains, and some fishermen claim reducing their fuel usage by 50 percent. Regulations on the practice have been heavily lobbied by the industry in the EU for years.

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Critics of the practice say that in addition to animal cruelty concerns, the environmental impact of pulse fishing is, in fact, much more serious than its proponents would like to believe. A group of 15 international government officials and scientists published an op-ed in French news outlet Le Monde in November of 2017 calling for an end to the practice. They cite the already heavily overfished ecosystems of Europe and rampant exploitative fishing practices as reasons why the electric trawlers should be unwelcome in European waters. A week prior to the Tuesday decision, over 200 leading chefs from across Europe signed a petition pledging to no longer purchase seafood harvested using electric pulsing.

French sole fishermen, who were never allowed to use the technology, have long argued that the special permissions were hurting their business, as they simply couldn’t compete with Dutch prices. French environmental advocacy group BLOOM, which led the charge to instate the ban, organised a coalition of small-scale fishers whose stories of economic difficulty in the face of commercial fisheries helped sway the MPs. “Let down by their national representation bodies… artisanal fishers have decided to take political control of their future," said Claire Nouvian, founder and president of BLOOM in a statement on the organisation’s website after the vote.

The ban, part of a consolidation of wider fishing regulations, will next be negotiated between the EU Commission and each member state before being fully implemented.