Fish in Troubled Waters

Aram Klijn
Aram Klijn is currently a first year Bsc Economics student. He is especially interested in macroeconomics, international trade and anything related to music.

A fish Out Of Water

The European parliament has voted to prohibit ‘electric pulse fishing’, a fishing practice which uses electric pulses to scare flatfish such as the flounder into leaving their sub-seabed hideouts in favour of a waiting fishing net. The usage of this technique lowers fuel consumption and, according to Dutch fishermen also reduces bycatch. A sizeable portion of the Dutch fishing fleet has switched to pulse fishing in recent years, in light of rising oil prices. The (mainly) French fishing fleet has not, favouring the older double-beam bottom trawling method that stirs up the ocean floor with chains to scare flatfish into their nets. The European parliament previously allowed up to 5 percent of a country’s fishing fleet to switch to electric pulse fishing, to test the waters. The European parliament now considers the experiment finished and wants to illegalize electric pulse fishing once more.


The prohibition of this practice has intensified the storm in a teacup that is European fishing regulations. Multiple environmental groups have rocked the boat by either concurring with or protesting against electric pulse fishing. Dutch environmental agencies such as Greenpeace and Stichting de Noordzee are hopeful that pulse fishing will contribute to sustainable fishing in the North Sea, but that it needs to be cleared up once-and-for-all what the effects of pulse fishing are (Hakkenes, 2018). The French environmental agency Bloom argues that pulse fishing makes it impossible for sustainable, small-scale, traditional (read: French) fishermen to keep their head above water. By hell or high water, they have vowed not to let ‘The handful of Dutch industrials win the war!’ (Hakkenes, 2018).

 A Fine Kettle Of Fish

The Dutch fishermen who have switched to electric pulse fishing argue that pulse fishing is both beneficial to the health of the fish and cuts down both fuel costs and bycatch by half. They argue that this will make fishing both more efficient and more sustainable in the long run. It would also eliminate the damage to the seabed caused by bottom trawling. The electric pulse that cramps up the fish’s muscles ‘does not cause the fish any pain’, says Durk van Tuinen of the Dutch Fisherman’s Association (Hakkenes, 2018).

The French argue that the electric pulse does hurt the animals, as supposedly evidenced by the broken spines of the cod bycatch. Out of 45 fish, 4 had broken their spine due to the electric shock, distressing the animals and paralyzing them. Durk van Tuinen nuances this statement by arguing that all cod bycatch caught by way of bottom trawling dies, while with electric pulse fishing, only 10 percent is left paralyzed. However, it is unknown how much sea life is stunned by the electric pulses and not caught. The University Of Wageningen argues that shore crabs can also be stunned, making them more likely to be eaten by other predators.

Clearing murky waters

There are as of yet too few studies conducted to determine how much harm pulse fishing causes. A study conducted by the University Of Wageningen in conjunction with the Flemish Institute for Fishery and the Dutch Royal institute of Sea Research is expected to be completed next year. In the meantime, a trilogue negotiation between the member states involved, the EU Commission and the EU Parliament will have to pour oil on troubled waters, but for the time being, Dutch fishermen will be ploughing water.


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