NGOs demand action on fishing bycatch

Groups slam EU inaction following claims that porpoise deaths prove habitats directive breaches

Four environmental groups yesterday urged EU environment commissioner Margot Wallström to take action to prevent deaths of harbour porpoises, thousands of which are accidentally caught annually by fishing nets. The NGOs complained that the European Commission had still to respond to a complaint they sent in May, alleging that member states were breaching the "bycatch" clause of the habitats directive.

Porpoises are accorded strict protection under the habitats directive, which also requires member states to monitor their accidental capture and death. Despite this, the groups say, member states have taken no action. Only Denmark has produced a draft plan to reduce porpoise bycatch and this is inadequate, NGOs allege.

Commission officials told ENDS Daily that there was little the EU could do without member state reports on implementation of the directive, which are still awaited. Furthermore, one official said, even with enough information the Commission would probably still be unable to enforce the directive's marine protection provisions beyond member states' 12-mile territorial limits.

This opinion marks a striking shift from earlier indications that member states would be forced to apply habitats directive rules up to 200 miles from shore following a Greenpeace legal victory over the UK government in 1999 (ENDS Daily 5 November 1999). Both environmental groups and Commission officials subsequently predicted that all EU member states would have to follow suit and apply the directive's rules throughout their "exclusive economic zones" (EEZ) (ENDS Daily 25 November 1999).

An official told ENDS Daily that the legal basis for requiring application of the habitats directive beyond territorial waters in fact remained unclear. The 1999 UK court ruling had forced Britain to accept this responsibility, the official said, but without a court judgement at European level there was no certainty whether this applied to other countries as the Commission would like.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111; Danish society for the conservation of nature tel: +45 39 17 40 23; WWF European Policy Office, tel: +32 2 743 8806.

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