By Tom Westcott.
Tripoli, 16 July:
Despite the release of three Italian fishing vessels and their 19 crew captured in June off . . .[restrict]the coast and detained for a month in Benghazi, the disputed presence of European fishermen in Libya’s Fisheries Protection Zone (FPZ) remains unresolved.
The Italian Consul General in Benghazi, Guido de Sanctis, told Libya Herald: “This matter has to be seen under the political aspect of the Mediterranean zone, which is important and in which Libya’s place is unique.” He added that the development of fishing in Libya in cooperation with other countries was a matter for the European Union.
Libyan waters are a major spawning ground for the endangered Bluefin Tuna, as well as crustaceans such as red prawns, a popular European seafood.
In 2005 Libya declared a FPZ stretching 62 nautical miles from the coast, within which resources would be managed by the Libyan government. Thereafter, foreign fleets were allowed to fish only with permission from the government, and were charged for so doing. This extended FPZ has not been recognised by Italy nor the wider EU.
The three Italian vessels, ‘Boccia’, ‘Mistral‘ and ‘Antonio Sirrato’ all from Sicily’s main fishing port Mazaro del Vallo, were fishing for red prawns 42 miles off the Libyan coast when they were boarded by the authorities on 7 June. They were taken to Benghazi where the crews, 12 Italians and 7 Tunisians were initially held on their boats.
Their catch of red prawns was impounded. Then suspicions arose over fragments of ancient pots that been had dredged up in their nets whilst trawling. It is common for trawling nets to gather up such historic artefacts from the ocean floor.
However, there was some confusion about whether these ancient fragments might be Libyan. The fishermen were jailed for six days on suspicion of smuggling antiquities.
Once the antiquities were examined by the Department of Antiquities in Tripoli and found to be worth nothing, the crews were returned to their trawlers. There they were held for a month, awaiting a hearing in the Benghazi Court.
Despite reports in the Italian media of the crews’ mistreatment, de Sanctis said: “I don’t think they can say they have been treated badly, with the exception of the jail period.”
The whole judicial process has been marred by confusion over how the FPZ regulations are applied and the nature of the charges against the firshermen.
Initially the men from the three vessels were all charged with fishing in the FPZ. Then they were charged with stealing archaeological artefacts. A judge ruled on 4 July no artefacts had been stolen because items in question could have been found anywhere in the Mediterranean.
However, one of the boats was found guilty of fishing in the FPZ while the final verdict on the other two crews remains undecided.
The release of the three trawlers on 6 July might have heralded the end of the saga but it did not. On their planned departure day, the boats were boarded by 20 Libyans who had been authorised to strip the vessels of their valuable trawling nets. These were impounded in lieu of bail, pending the final decision of the court.
De Sanctis, who had supported the fishermen throughout their time in Libya, described how this was the last straw for these “men of humble stock”
“The thing that really scared them was on the last day, the impounding of the fishing equipment and how these people went on board and took everything out in two hours “ said de Sanctis, “That was the final shock. Our fisherman were looking forward to leave and they had to bear this final humiliation.”
The owners of the three Sicilian vessels are now awaiting a final judgement from the Benghazi court. They have paid a fine of €4,000 levied by the court and they have purchased their own catch of prawns back from the Libyan authorities, because there is no market for these crustaceans in Libya.
But they do not know whether their fishing equipment will be returned. The estimated cost of replacing the nets is €60,000 per vessel. The total economic loss for the owners, including having three boats unable to work at the height of the red prawn season, is estimated at up to €250,000.
The season is short, running only until October.
It is understood that Italian fishermen trawling for red prawns will not enter the FPZ for the remainder of this season.
De Sanctis explained: “The reasonable objective should be to be ready with cooperation programmes for next season, in order to be able to fish red prawn here. If this doesn’t happen, the situation will just go on repeating itself and is very dangerous.”