French Drift Net Dispute Turns Nasty

Environmentalists and fishermen are at odds off the south coast of France. The fishermen objected to being photographed while catching tuna with driftnets — a practice banned by the U.N. and the European Union.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Earlier this week, there was a nasty confrontation at sea about 30 miles off the South Coast to France. For two weeks, some environmentalists have been taking photos and videos of French fishermen catching tuna with massive driftnets. The nets have been banned by the United Nations and the European Union.

As NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports the fishermen didn't appreciate the attention at all.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: It was a calm, sunny morning on the Mediterranean, that is until a group of fishing boats started zooming straight towards the Ranger, a catamaran owned by the environmental group Oceana.

Mr. XAVIER PASTOR (Vice President for Europe, Oceana): They came from every point on the horizon. There were seven boats approaching and trying to put a net around our boat, screaming to us, stop your boat, stop your boat.

SHOGREN: Xavier Pastor was on the catamaran. He says within no time his crew of a dozen environmentalists was surrounded by 30 fishermen.

Mr. PASTOR: And they were very angry, and they actually also were doing all kinds of obscene gestures like putting their pants down and showing their genitals.

SHOGREN: Pastor says some of the fishermen threw bottles and even dead fish, stingrays with poisonous spines.

Mr. PASTOR: They also used high-pressure water hoses against us.

SHOGREN: One of the fishing boats crossed in front of the catamaran and dropped a rope.

Mr. PASTOR: The rope went under our boat and got entangled on the propeller.

SHOGREN: That brought the catamaran to a halt. Pastor says it's clear what the fishermen wanted.

Mr. PASTOR: The worse threat they were giving us is either you give us your cameras and your film or we will come on board and we'll get them.

SHOGREN: Pastor wasn't willing to give up the film. He says it plainly documents that 80 French fishing boats having been illegally using driftnets. They used them to catch rare Bluefin tuna in the midst of their migration. These are huge nets, several miles long. They were banned to prevent over-fishing and to protect dolphins, sea turtles and sea birds.

But the French government has been allowing small boats to keep using the nets. Pastor hopes that will soon change. European officials are expected to take up the issue at a meeting in Brussels next month, and Pastor plans to give them his images.

Mr. PASTOR: And what we are expecting to happen is that our European council of ministers will tell to France - well, that's it, there is no more excuses, you cannot avoid enforcing that regulation anymore.

SHOGREN: A French diplomat in Washington said since France recently elected a new president, it's not clear what position the new government will take. Pastor predicts change is coming.

Mr. PASTOR: The fishermen see this danger, see that this tolerance to their activity may go away, and they are reacting very strongly to prevent that from happening.

SHOGREN: The fishermen had a very different view of the encounter. An industry representative told the French wire service, Agence France-Presse, that the environmentalists were the aggressive ones. He said some activists attacked a small fishing boat at night and ransacked their gear to provoke an incident.

Xavier Pastor from Oceana denied these accusations. He says Oceana opposes confrontational tactics. Both sides do agree on one thing - the clash ended after French officials sent two helicopters to the scene.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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