“All change at sea” say the Cyclades Prefecture and the central government. Drastic proposals have been made by local and national bodies to prevent the collapse of fish stocks, but their implementation remains to be seen.
The government decision to end the three-year exemption granted to vintzotrates (trawlers that pull drift nets) from the stipulations of EU regulation 1967/2006 on fisheries provoked the angry protests of the 13 Parian owners of these vessels, who anchored their boats beside the main quay of Paroikia during a few days in mid-October, briefly obstructing the docking of ‘Aiolos Kenteris’ on 11 October. Many of the boats carried black flags, as an expression of the fishermen’s opposition to the government decision. Some boats carried banners saying “Don’t fool us – we want a solution now.”
The decision of the Ministry of Agricultural Development to enforce EU requirements in the area, by putting an end to the three-year exemption from the stipulations of EU regulation 1967/2006, means that vintzotrates will no longer be able to fish within one mile of the coast. Beginning as at 1 October (the start of the fishing period) owners of vintzotrates are required to fish at a minimum distance of three miles from the shore or at a minimum depth of 50 metres. The ‘eye’ of fishing nets has also been set at 40mm. Alternatively, owners of vintzotrates could switch to other fishing methods, such as fishing with conventional nets or trawling lines (paragadia) instead of drift nets.
Owners of vintzotrates contend that their boats are not designed to fish far from the shore and that adopting other fishing methods – even if they possess the necessary knowledge – is a costly venture. Attempts made in the past by vintzotrates to fish in deep waters met with failure, as the total catch registered per boat was less than 100-150 euros worth of fish, meaning that fishermen couldn’t even cover their costs. Speaking to local newspaper Foni tis Parou, Yiannis Perantinos, a local fisherman who has spent his entire working life on board a vintzotrata, argued that the decision leaves fishermen “suspended in mid-air. They took a decision to effectively ban our type of vessel without any thought of providing us with a safety net. We can’t find a way out of this maze as the fisheries department has been passed onto another ministry and no-one can give us a clear picture of what’s going on. The only thing we know is that they’re thinking of compensating us if we decommission our boats.” However, he added that thoughts to offer fishermen compensation money were only at a planning stage.
Opinions on the exact impact of vintzotrates on the marine environment differ. According to studies carried out by ELKETHE (the Greek Institute of Marine Research) all fishing methods cause varying degrees of damage to the marine environment, but of all the trawlers that operate in Greek waters vintzotrates are the ones that cause the least damage. This assessment seems to have been confirmed by a survey carried out by the marine department of the University of the Aegean in 2006. Responding to scientists’ questions concerning the main reasons behind the decline of fish stocks in the Aegean, coastal fishermen lay the blame primarily on mechanotrates (trawlers pulling drag nets) and gri-gri (purse seiners or trawlers which drag seine nets to encircle schools of fish). Vintzotrates appeared eighth in the long list of causes cited for the depletion of fish stocks.
Moreover, on-the-spot checks carried out by ELKETHE last year in 15 areas of Greece, including Paros, found that the amount of fish discarded overboard (either because they are too young or because they have no commercial value) in the case of vintzotrates is relatively small (around 10%), compared to 47% in the case of mechanotrates. Also, ELKETHE’s preliminary studies did not provide much evidence of vintzotrates causing significant damage to the Posidonia meadows, the ‘sea forests’ that constitute a breeding ground for fish and, through the algae’s photosynthesis, keep the seas supplied with oxygen.
Other bodies, however, maintain that vintzotrates bring about significant damage to the marine environment, even if this is of a lesser degree compared to other types of vessels.
Posidonia meadows grow at depths of up to 50 metres, while reefs are typically found at depths of between 40 and 95 metres. Both of these ecosystems provide food and refuge to some 300 types of flora and 1,000 types of fauna. They also protect coasts from the effects of erosion. Vintzotrates, which up until now could fish as close as 70 metres to the shore, are held accountable for damaging these fragile ecosystems by environmental groups. These ecosystems can take decades to recover from intensive fishing methods, due to their slow rate of regeneration. The effects of climate change and pollution also make it harder for them to recover. What’s more, according to Yiorgos Paximadis, WWF spokesman on marine matters, Greece has not carried out a detailed geographical survey of its sea bed, as is required by EU regulations. According to Paximadis: “Only 57 marine areas of ‘sea forests’ and reefs have been documented by Greece so far,” despite the fact that these ecosystems are responsible for sustaining life and biodiversity in Greek waters.
The health of our seas is bound up with the protection of these areas. Without the proper documentation of marine ecosystems Greece cannot offer them adequate protection. Also, without a geographical survey of its sea bed, Greece appears to have lacked a legal basis for deviating from EU regulation 1967/2006 on fisheries which requires detailed documentation of such ecosystems as a precondition for opting out from its clauses.
Responding to calls that have been made by marine biologists to protect the depleted fish stocks of the Aegean (as reported in the September issue of Paros Life & Naxos Life), the prefect of the Cyclades, Dimitris Bailas, decided to heed the scientists’ advice and has suggested the creation of a network of marine reserves in the southern Cyclades that will cover between 5% and 8% of the southern Cyclades coastline (this network will also include a number of uninhabited islands). Such marine areas will constitute 'no-take' zones, i.e. they will be areas where fishing and all kinds of human activities will be strictly forbidden.
The Cyclades Prefecture, at its meeting on the island of Anafi on 7 September, also gave its unanimous support to the following measures:
- Forbidding the operation of mechanotrates throughout the Cyclades.
- Decomissioning the 44 vintzotrates operating in the Cyclades area over a 5 year period. In return, fishermen will receive generous compensation.
- Banning the use of fishing nets in May (an important breeding month for fish). It was proposed that fishermen who remain out of work during May receive unemployment benefit.
- Banning underwater fishing activities at night.
- Enforcing the law of the sea.
No timetable or funding source for the implementation of these measures was offered, however.
Representatives of coastal fishermen from Milos and Folegandros who were present at the meeting voiced their concerns about the dwindling fish stocks in the Aegean Sea and argued that the network of protected areas should expand in the future as their impact on fish stocks and biodiversity becomes apparent.
Asked to comment on these proposals, a Parian vintzotrata fisherman (who preferred to remain anonymous) told us he is in favour of these measures, provided the fate of his own trawler is clarified. He also told us that these measures have been long overdue and that the banning of fishing activities by trawlers during April-May 1986 by then Cyclades Prefect, Elizavet Papazoi, had resulted in the marked recovery of fish stocks. Reaction against these measures shortly afterwards had led to their withdrawal.
When asked whether he thought these proposals would be implemented by the municipalities and the regional authority of the South Aegean next year, given that they will take over the duties of prefectures under the ‘Kallikratis’ reform, he seemed far less optimistic: “Don’t kid yourself,” he said, “we’re in Greece.”