Friday, February 15, 2013

Intermarche fleet is ‘loss-making, destructive, propped up by subsidies’

France’s largest deep-sea fishing fleet is being artificially propped up by millions in state subsidies and cash injections from its owners, said a French NGO.

Scapeche, part of the Intermarche group, has accumulated losses of €19 million before tax since 2002 – and this in spite of €10m in state subsidies and €20m in cash injections from Intermarche, said the environmental association Bloom.

Following a procedure started at a commercial court by Bloom, Scapeche released its annual accounts for 2009-2012 in mid-January, said Bloom. The NGO says the accounts show that the company has been loss-making since 2002, bar minor profits of €1m and €300,000 in 2006 and 2007, and an “artificial profit” of €1.1m in 2011.

This comes in spite of the fact that the group has received nearly €10m in subsidies including for fishing and fuel aids, said Bloom.

The public subsidies provided to Scapeche “clearly contradict the objectives of the [European Union's] Common Fisheries Policy, which are ‘to support the growth of economically viable companies’ and ‘to protect the environment and marine resources’”, said the organization.

“This means French taxpayers are paying to sustain a fleet that’s not only chronically loss-making, but that is also hugely damaging to the ocean beds,” Claire Nouvian, a Pew fellow and founder of Bloom, told Undercurrent News.

“I know personally that is not what I want my tax money to go to – we really have to ask ourselves what kind of fisheries we want to have.”

Scapeche’s managing director Tristan Douard did not return requests to comment to Undercurrent.

Nouvian is scheduled to present her report at a hearing with the European parliament’s fisheries committee on Feb. 19. The European parliament is due to discuss a proposal by the European commission that seeks to ban all bottom trawls and bottom gillnets targeted at deep-sea fishing within two years.

With its six deep-sea vessels catching primarily blue ling, black scabbardfish and roundnose grenadier, mainly off Ireland and Scotland, Scapeche is the last significant deep-sea fishing fleet remaining in France, and probably the largest one still fishing in EU waters.

The two former main French players, Euronor and Dhellemmes, now only operate one deep-sea vessel each at around 30%-40% capacity, according to Nouvian. And while Spain has some deep-sea fishing vessels as well, these primarily fish outside of EU waters and the North East Atlantic.

As a result, Scapeche would stand to lose the most from the commission’s proposal, should it be accepted, said Nouvian. France vowed to oppose the proposal as soon as it was announced last July.

But according to Bloom, Scapeche would not even exist were it not for the artificial support it receives.

“On its own, this fleet would never have survived,” Nouvian, who is also the author of the book The Deep (Abysses), said. “But Intermarche makes a profit as they sell fish that would sell for €2 at the fish auction for more than €15 in retail.”

In other words, “Buying a fish at Intermarché’s supermarkets is almost equivalent to paying for it twice, first upstream through our taxes and downstream as consumers,” said Nouvian.

The incentive for Intermarche, she argued, is two-fold. “Under French law, having a loss-making subsidiary [such as Intermarche with Scapeche] entitles you to tax relief. Then, the fleet also entitles them to fisheries subsidies.”

Bloom obtained Scapeche’s annual results in January 2013, after starting recovery proceedings at a commercial court. The case never went to court as Scapeche – which had not filed its results since 2008 — then released the information.

In addition to touting its responsible fisheries criteria and transparency, Scapeche has been “putting emphasis on its profitability and the importance of its activities for employment (without providing the calculation base of the jobs supposedly involved)”, said Bloom.

“Therefore, it became necessary to give the public and members of the European parliament who will soon be called to vote on this regulation access to elementary data so they can form an objective opinion on the socio-economic performance of this single company, which is currently disproportionately weighing in on an international regulation.”

This is not the first time Bloom is putting the spotlight on Scapeche – in 2012, Intermarche was ordered to pull down ads that touted Scapeche’s responsible fishing credentials as a result of a campaign by Bloom.

The NGO had criticized the ads for misleading consumers with a logo that it said was made to resemble the Marine Stewardship Council logo, wrongly giving the impression that the fishing activities are certified for sustainable practices.

But Bloom’s focus is not on Scapeche as such, it is on deep-sea fishing, Nouvian told Undercurrent.

Scientists, including the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), have warned about the impact of deep-sea fishing, especially bottom trawl fishing which damages corals and other sea life that take decades to rebuild.

Two of the three species caught by Scapeche, roundhouse grenadier and blue ling, are identified by ICES as stocks thought to have severely declined over the past years.

ICES has warned that several deep-sea stocks are “heavily exploited and in some cases severely depleted” and has said that all EU deep-sea fishing is outside of safe biological limits. The organization has called for “immediate reduction of fishing pressure on fully exploited or overexploited deep-sea stocks”.

According to Bloom, referring to a 2010 study by Ifremer (page 24), for the three main species targeted by the fishing vessels of Scapeche, more than 100 deep-sea species are discarded overboard. “Useless species from a commercial point of view but indispensable to marine biodiversity… Creatures which we know almost nothing about but include some, such as deep-sea sharks, which are already in danger of extinction,” said Nouvian.

The European commission first proposed last July to phase out and ban all bottom trawling and bottom-set gillnets for EU vessels targeting deep-sea species within two years. The proposal was backed by Virgin boss Richard Branson, in a letter to the UK fisheries minister Richard Benyon last November, after the issue was brought to his attention by the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.

Deep-sea fishing with bottom trawls and bottom-set gillnets “causes more harm to vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems than other fishing methods, and involves high levels of unwanted by-catches (20 to 40% in weight, or more)”, said the European commission.

“This proposal is still there and now being amended/discussed by the European parliament and the national ministers before it becomes legislation,” an EU spokesperson told Undercurrent.

As soon as the proposal was unveiled, the French EU commissioner for internal markets, Michel Barnier, said he would oppose it. This prompted a comment by Daniel Pauly, marine biologist with the University of British Colombia, that France “will be better known for its deep-sea fishing than the depth of its ideas”.

A few months later, the European council increased quotas for three deep-sea species for 2013, including for roundnose grenadier west of the British Isles and two black scabbardfish stocks off Scotland and Ireland.

Source: Undercurrent News

Image courtesy of informatique via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)