Illegal Italian Driftnet Fishing Boat Gives Chase, Tries to Ram Oceana's U.S.-Flagged Vessel Ranger

Confrontation at Sea

Aug 08, 2005, 01:00 ET from Oceana

    WASHINGTON, Aug. 8 /PRNewswire/ -- Oceana's research catamaran, Ranger,
 filming and photographing illegal driftnet fishing off southern Italy, was
 chased in the high seas and narrowly escaped a ramming attempt by angry
 Sicilian commercial fishermen whose colleagues have been arrested and their
 boats and nets confiscated in the past two weeks as the international ocean
 conservation group works to stop the forbidden practice that kills dolphins by
 the hundreds in the Mediterranean.
     Four days later, the swordfish fishermen tracked down Ranger's crew at a
 small marina. The fishermen issued death threats, demanding the crew turn over
 the film and photos.
     "We are astounded to see the lengths to which these illegal commercial
 fishermen will go to stop the world from witnessing their foul practice," said
 Andrew Sharpless, Oceana's chief executive officer. "The European Union has
 paid boat owners up to $50,000 a boat to convert to legal fishing gear, but
 many simply pocket the money and keep fishing with driftnets. The result is
 the deaths of dolphins, sea turtles and other marine wildlife in these
 curtains of death."
     Since mid-June, Oceana's Ranger has been patrolling the Tyrrhenian Sea --
 the western Mediterranean area between the southern tip of the Italian boot
 and the islands of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia -- photographing and
 videotaping illegal driftnet boats in ports and at sea. Ranger's crew has
 taken down boat names and registration numbers and compared them to the list
 of boat owners who obtained European Union and Italian government subsidies of
 up to US$50,000 per boat to convert to legal nets, a program that has
 disbursed more than 200 million euros.  Many have pocketed the money and kept
 on using driftnets.
     "Some boats hid their illegal nets under plywood covers, away from prying
 eyes, but we still were able to see the winches and light buoys; others
 displayed the driftnets without concern," said marine biologist Xavier Pastor,
 Oceana's vice president for Europe and leader of the Ranger patrol mission.
 "We have reported these boats to the Italian authorities."
     Police have arrested crews and confiscated three boats and nets, including
 the Stella del Sud at the Ischia Island harbor.
     On July 29, Ranger visited harbors in the islands of Sant Antioco and
 Calasetta, in western Sardinia, then went out to sea on patrol. At dawn on
 Sunday, July 31, Ranger spotted the Alba Chiara, in international waters, in
 the process of hauling in the last hundred meters of her long driftnet.
     "We carefully approached the boat and placed Ranger in a position that did
 not interfere with their operation or safety but allowed our filming crew an
 excellent vantage point to record this action," said Pastor. "As soon as the
 fishermen realized what we were doing, they went mad, screaming and shouting
 at us. They cut loose the rest of their net and came at us."
     Ranger's captain, Carlos Perez, immediately engaged the Ranger's engines
 and made to leave the area. The Alba Chiara opened its throttle and gave chase
 at full speed.
     "They approached the Ranger at a distance of 20 to 30 meters of our aft,
 and we had to engage in evasive maneuvers to avoid being rammed," said Pastor.
 "We made a frantic radio call for help and told the Italian coast guard of the
 Alba Chiara's attempt to ram us."
     As soon as the SOS call was aired, the Alba Chiara ceased the chase and
 turned back to pick up its nets and buoys. Ranger turned around and followed.
 Once the fishing gear was loaded, the Alba Chiara headed for port. The coast
 guard told Ranger they would be waiting at two possible ports to intercept the
 Alba Chiara.
     The second incident happened on Thursday, Aug. 4. Eight fishermen,
 including one who identified himself at the Alba Chiara's skipper, located
 Ranger at the 160-berth Marina Siffredo in San Pietro Island, the westernmost
 of the islands surrounding Sardinia.
     The fishermen approached the four Ranger crew members who were walking on
 a pier near Ranger, shouted insults and issued death threats, including making
 gestures to signal throat-cutting. The fishermen wanted the Ranger crew to
 turn over the film and photos. The marina owners summoned local police, which
 took down IDs and escorted the fishermen off the property, but made no
     Ranger is continuing its patrols. The EU directive prohibiting driftnets
 (EU Regulation 1239/98) and Italian legislation prohibits the use by any
 European Union vessel of driftnets of any size. In 1998, when the legislation
 was adopted, Italy grudgingly went along only after a threatened trade boycott
 by the United States. Since then, Oceana and other ocean conservation groups
 have been attempting to make Italy enforce the law.
     Driftnets, also called gillnets, are mesh panels of net made from plastic
 strands designed to catch fish by their gills. They do such a good job that in
 the process they also capture many other kinds of fish and ocean wildlife,
 which are usually discarded as unwanted bycatch.  Globally, gillnets catch and
 kill more than 30 different species of marine mammals, including bottlenose
 dolphins and harbor porpoises.  These fisheries deploy hundreds of yards of
 net and leave them in the water for long periods of time, from several hours
 to several days.  Sea turtles entangled underwater in a driftnet can drown in
 under an hour of forced submergence.
     Ranger, whose port of registry is Annapolis, Md., recently completed an
 11,000-mile transoceanic voyage, Oceana's first ocean expedition, leaving
 California in January and arriving at its European base of Majorca in June.
 Ranger and its crew visited a dozen marine biodiversity hotspots in the
 Pacific and Atlantic, capturing 400 hours of unique underwater photography and
 7,000 high-resolution still photographs.  Nearly 100 volunteers and Oceana
 staff from a half-dozen countries contributed to the voyage, including
 biologists, underwater camera operators, photographers and support divers.
     Oceana campaigns to protect and restore the world's oceans. Our teams of
 marine scientists, economists, lawyers and advocates win specific and concrete
 policy changes to reduce pollution and to prevent the irreversible collapse of
 fish populations, marine mammals and other sea life. Global in scope and
 dedicated to conservation, Oceana has campaigners based in North America
 (Washington, DC; Juneau, AK; Los Angeles, CA), Europe (Madrid, Spain;
 Brussels, Belgium) and South America (Santiago, Chile).  More than 300,000
 members and e-activists in over 150 countries have already joined Oceana. For
 more information, please visit