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KLAIPEDA and STRASBOURG - Are the European Commission and its fisheries watchdog, Department of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, more caring about Atlantic mackerel and fish-abundant Mauritania, or small European fisheries like JSC Baltlanta from Lithuania?
They are definitely not concerned about the interests of small European fisheries, like that of Lithuania, maintain the heads of Baltlanta, once the largest oceanic fishing industry company in the Baltics.
New regulations are too tough
Thriving until the European Union’s involvement into its business, now the company has fallen victim to the adverse EU fishing policies as its vessels have been grounded from last September. Blaming in particular the EU Fisheries Commissioner, Maria Damanaki, for their misfortunes, some at Baltlanta call her, sneeringly, “ a duffer” who has perhaps no clue in her Brussels office how crippling the policies have been to Baltlanta off the African coast after she signed the new Protocol to the EC and Mauritania Fisheries Partnership Agreement, a big time game-changer for the Lithuanian company.
“According to the Protocol, the fish quotas have been redistributed among the EU member states. Now they favor big fleets that only large European countries can boast of. The permissible fishing zone has been pulled back beyond the 20 nautical miles, 10 miles deeper into the ocean from the previous zone. That has reduced our catch 10 times; the Commission has nodded to Mauritania’s demand to recruit 60 percent of the workforce in the country. Besides, the EC negotiators have agreed to give 2 percent of the fish catch for local charities, which translates into thousands of tons at the end of the day. Among other common sense-defying concessions to Mauritania is the obligation to buy ship fuel from local vendors and offload the catch only in Mauritanian seaports, both of which is also nonsense,” said Alfonsas Bargaila, chairman of Lithuania’s Fishing Enterprise Association (LFEA).
“The new demands, especially the change in the fishing quota distribution, had worked so drastically against us that we had to ground our five-vessel fleet from September and sell two of the ships to offset the company’s debt-ridden balance sheets. That helped us to cling to life for now, but if we don’t get extra fishing quotas from the European Commission, a slow but assured bankruptcy awaits us,” says Bronius Bikulcius, the Baltlanta director.
In the peak of business, the company would haul onto the decks up to 100,000 tons of mackerel and scad a year. This matches the yearly catch of all Lithuanian fishing boats in the Baltic Sea. But from last September over 200 Baltlanta sailors are idling in African ports, without pay or hope for a better future.
“The European Commission negotiators could hardly have forged a more detrimental fishing agreement like the one with Mauritania,” says Bikulcius. Forced to buy fuel from local vendors at a price $100 per ton higher than the market, the company’s annual fuel bill will soar by a few million dollars.
“Speaking of the requirement to employ 60 percent of Mauritanian seamen on the vessels, to accommodate them, Baltlanta will have to lay off its seasoned and qualified sailors and pay them massive termination compensation. Besides, the Mauritanian workforce is usually unskilled and little reliable,” notes Bargaila.
The 2 percent charity thing, he says, is “absolutely preposterous” and won’t serve the cause.
“No need to say, the country has been corruption-plagued, so it makes no sense to speak of the idea of charities. The ‘charity fish’ don’t go on the table of the needy, but is being sold in the local black market. Mauritania possesses very limited capacities to store fish production, so no way can it store those 400-600 tons of ‘charity fish’ we are obliged to give it from our nets,” says Aleksandras Lobaciovas, a Baltlanta shareholder.
According to the new EC-Mauritania fishing Protocol, the EC has agreed to pay nearly 70 million euros for it every year. “It means that all EU fisheries will have to chip in. For many smaller fisheries, it means loss and waste of EU taxpayer money,” he notes.
Fisheries Commission: “Lithuania will benefit from new opportunities”
Meanwhile, the EC Commission of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries defends its new agreement with Mauritania. “Concerning the Lithuanian fleet in Mauritanian waters, in the light of the data provided by the industry, the new fishing opportunities should be profitable and worth using, despite more stringent technical and financial conditions. This applies especially to the segments targeting higher-value species beyond the 20-mile zone... The pelagic overall fishing quota in Mauritania (300,000 tons) corresponds to the wishes conveyed by the industry… 60 percent of Mauritanian seamen on board of EU vessels will help to develop a better national jobs policy without harming the operations of the EU fleets. Contribution in kind of 2 percent of pelagic catches, calculated on top of the fishing quotas is a substantial EU contribution to the fight against an acute food crisis in Mauritania,” said a Commission representative, press officer for the Commissioner of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.
Disagreeing, the LFEA chairman, Bargaila, says that not only smaller ocean fishing industries, like Lithuania’s, complain over the new regulations, as large EU oceanic fleets are also dissatisfied with the Protocol to the EC and Mauritania Fisheries Partnership Agreement.
Quite recently, the head of Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment, Miguel Arias Canete, participating in the session of the EU Fisheries Minister Council, reiterated that the Spanish government is not in favor of signing any fisheries agreement and repeatedly expressed a negative assessment of the Fisheries Protocol signed with Mauritania in July.
For the Spanish minister, the bilateral agreement is “expensive,” since the counterpart of the annual sum of 70 million euros and the payments to private operators - an additional 30-35 million euros per year - “are not justified by reducing the fishing opportunities from the new technical conditions for the pelagic fleet, the shellfish fleet and the other species fleet.”
“Spain continues believing that it is an agreement that needs renegotiating, that cannot enter into force provisionally because we will pay compensation that we will not be able to recover for not using non-existing fishing opportunities,” the minister added.
China is pushing EU fleet out
The European Parliament is due to vote on the Protocol to the EC and Mauritania Fisheries Partnership Agreement in March, and with the opposition against it mounting, Baltlanta is hoping there still might be some light at the end of the tunnel. Nevertheless, even if the document is scrapped, that won’t suddenly guarantee a brighter future for the Lithuanian fishermen.
“Due to the loopholes in the EU and Mauritania fishing regulations, EU flag-hoisting trawlers, particularly owned by small EU countries, are being forced out of the waters by the Chinese companies that have promised to staff their vessels 100 percent with locals and build a number of fish factories in Mauritania,” says Lobaciovas.
He claims that the European Union is giving up its traditionally European fishery to China because the Union lacks skilled fishery-savvy decision-makers in the EU. “You cannot expect smart and EU interest-defending policies when the people in the position to make decisions come from absolutely fishery-irrelevant fields. And those in the decision-making capacity do not even listen to the fishermen’s needs. Particularly from a small country like Lithuania,” says the Baltlanta stakeholder, bearing in mind Maria Damanaki, the commissioner.
If nothing changes soon, Baltlanta vessels are ready to relinquish the white-star-dotted EU flag and to hoist an African flag instead. For a single purpose: to shun the EU discriminating fishing conditions and stay afloat. Literally.
Fishing trawlers from Russia, Latvia, Belgium, Iceland, Ukraine, and the Netherlands, and until recently Lithuania, ploughed the Atlantic waters hauling up scad and mackerel-full nets. Though the new quota distribution order has granted more quotas to the Dutch, some of the Baltlanta officials call their fishing practices “barbaric.”
“Given the extra quotas, they are rushing to use them and, with the capacities and quotas they have, they are simply exterminating the fish,” one of the interviewees said on the condition of anonymity.
Bypassing EU might be option
Nevertheless, the Lithuanian company hopes that no agreement similar to the EU-Mauritanian fishing protocol will be passed with Morocco or, in the longer run, with Senegal, the other two traditional Baltlanta’s fisheries known for abundance of fish.
“As far as I know, the EU has just completed the initial rounds of negotiations on the fishing conditions with Morocco. At least three or four other rounds lie ahead, with the signing being preliminarily set for March. God forbid, if they hammer out an agreement similar to that one with Mauritania, that will ram the last nail into the company’s coffin,” says the LFEA head.
However, the fisheries abundance along the Moroccan coastline is not on par with Mauritania. “Until recently, Baltlanta used to catch in the Mauritanian fishing zone from 60,000 to 90,000 tons of fish a year. The production off the Moroccan coast never exceeded 20,000 tons a year,” says Bikulcius.
Desperate and dismayed, Baltlanta is pondering striking a direct fishing deal, bypassing Brussels, with the Senegalese authorities. “Senegal perhaps is the straw Baltlanta can grasp in the hopes of averting bankruptcy. But here also is a range of issues involved. The European Commission cannot stand when the EU member states talk over agreement with the African countries on their own,” admits Bargaila.
The move would definitely anger the EU officials, possibly bring penalties for Lithuania and put in stalemate the Lithuanian Economy Ministry’s Fishing Department in charge of dealing with Brussels.
Excoriated for lackadaisical efforts in defending the Lithuanian fishermen’s interest in the Atlantic, Aivaras Labanauskas, deputy director of the Lithuanian Fishery Department, fights off the accusations, claiming “the Lithuanian authorities have done everything in their power to defend Baltlanta.”
“The bottom line is about the decision maker, the European Commission. Unfortunately to Lithuania and other small EU member states, it has so far pandered to the interests of Mauritania. There are many large fisheries dissatisfied with the new regulations. The backlash against them is, quite frankly, huge, across most of the Union, so there is an increasingly big possibility that the European Parliament will obligate the Commission to overhaul and maybe overturn the agreements with Mauritania in March,” Labanauskas said.
But will Baltlanta last until then, when the company has lost all trust in the European Union and its decision makers?