A debate for science or emotion - or is it just too soon to legalise the widespread use of electricity to catch fish?

Samuel Stone By: Samuel Stone
Date posted: 26 January 2018

The use of electricity in the marine environment is currently banned under EU technical regulations, but a series of derogations for scientific and data collection purposes have made it possible for (primarily) the Dutch to roll out the electric pulse fishing method on a large scale over the last decade.

The use of electricity in the water has actually been used for decades to scientifically sample fish populations, and some experimental use in fish trawls started in the 1960s. It wasn’t until the fuel crisis of the 1970s that commercial electro trawling started to gain real traction as a means to reduce fuel consumption – especially in the fuel intensive beam trawl fisheries in the North Sea. Far exceeding any normal scientific trial, there are presently about 90 large (over 24m) modified beam trawl vessels that are using electricity to shock fish from the seabed instead of using conventional heavy tickler chains and chain mats.

Pulse trawl gear ©Ingerwilms

Whilst pulse trawling can reduce fuel consumption (by about half), physical contact with the seafloor and some unwanted catches, it presents a whole suite of new environmental and welfare issues that need to be better researched and understood before electricity can be safely introduced on a large scale to the marine environment.

On Tuesday 16th January, the EU Parliament voted to maintain a ban on catching or harvesting marine species using electric currents. The outcome was unexpected as amendments to the wider regulation (Regulation on the conservation of fishery resources and protection of marine ecosystems through technical measures) proposed by the European Commission to legalise the controversial method had been largely supported in a previous vote by the European Parliament’s Committee on Fisheries (PECH).

Whilst the outcome is surprising, it’s far from the end of the story, as the proposal will now need to be negotiated and agreed with the EU Council and EU Commission before being approved and passed into law.

The recent vote has been referred to as ‘emotion prevailing over facts’, but I find this claim extraordinary and itself based on emotion given the current lack of knowledge about the impacts of electric pulse trawling in the marine environment. Whilst there has been a reasonable amount of research on the effects of electric pulses on a selection of species in the lab - which actually suggests a relatively low impact - there remain large gaps in understanding on impacts to other species and processes, especially after long-term exposure. The method is also known to break the vertebrae of large cod and it’s unclear if similar damage could be inflicted on other large animals.

There is a complete lack of controlled field research to know if lab findings can be applied to real world conditions. And there is a lack of research available on the impact of pulse trawling on ecological processes of the seafloor community, such as nutrient cycling, microbial assemblages and biogeochemistry. Such processes and communities provide the building blocks of marine life, and electrifying saltwater and organic material is known to produce harmful by-products such as chlorine and heavy metals. These impacts could prove to be low, and electric pulse trawling could actually be a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional beam trawling, but before we have a more comprehensive understanding of the potential impacts, it strikes me as reckless to even try to legalise the large scale commercial use of electricity in the marine environment. Any use should be restricted to small, controlled scientific trials until potential impacts are better understood. After all, we’re not talking about a minor modification to net configuration – we’re talking about the industrial scale use of electricity on the seabed.

A research programme involving three PhDs in the Netherlands is currently underway to try to answer many of these questions. What is the point of this research if an industry jumps the gun and pushes to legalise the method before we know the outcome of the research?

Of concern, pulse trawling is already operating in marine protected areas in the North Sea, including Special Areas of Conservation. One would be forgiven for not knowing what exactly these areas are protected from at this stage if it isn’t beam or pulse trawling. These sites legally require evidence that the activity being undertaken will not adversely affect the health of the site. Little evidence has been provided to date though, nor have proper  impact assessments been undertaken. Whilst qualitative assessments from [ICES in 2016](http://www.ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication Reports/Advice/2016/Special_Requests/France_Effects_of_pulse_trawl.pdf) suggest a low impact to several species in these MPAs, the same gaps in understanding remain about the broader impacts of electrifying the seabed.

The activity is also expanding into areas of softer ground not traditionally fished by towed gear, potentially increasing the footprint of beam trawling in the North Sea and causing gear conflicts and anecdotal local depletion of fisheries resources in inshore UK and French fisheries. It’s therefore not surprising to see emotions running high from inshore fleets in the southern North Sea, the latest demonstration of this being blockades in Calais and Bologne.

I do remain open-minded about potential solutions to recover and sustainably manage our seas and I certainly recognise the incredible innovation of the Dutch industry. I think fishers are inherently innovative and I believe that fishers will play a leading role in developing the eco-friendly fisheries of the future. But I maintain that the introduction of electricity to the marine environment must be done in a structured and incremental way to allow for impact assessments to be undertaken. This has not occurred to date and it is simply too soon for electric pulse trawling to be legalised. There is too much at stake if we get this wrong.