Greening the EU fishing fleet, a costly and long-term challenge

Hybrid engines, optimized trawls, an end to fossil fuel subsidies… The EU is looking for ways to green its aging fishing fleet, whose huge energy bill is cutting into profitability – a transition that promises to be long, technologically complex and very costly.

With boats on average around 30 years old, “the big challenge is to modernize the fleet”, which would make it possible to stem the decline in the attractiveness of the profession among young people, but also to guarantee the survival of the sector, summarized European Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius on Tuesday.

The challenge is climate, as the EU aims for carbon neutrality by 2050, but also to ensure “more sustainable and more profitable fishing”, he insisted on the sidelines of a meeting of EU fisheries ministers in Vigo (Spain).

Marine diesel prices have more than doubled in 2022, capturing 35% of the sector’s revenues, compared to 13% in 2020. The energy needs of fishing are mainly associated with pulling gear and keeping catches on board.

However, innovative technologies “are in the test phase, do not exist on a large scale, nor at affordable prices”, recognizes Mr. Sinkevicius.

Electric motors, hybrids, running on hydrogen or biofuels, various avenues are being studied, many requiring expensive port infrastructure.

In the immediate future, the European Fund dedicated to fisheries (FEAMPA), endowed with 6.1 billion euros over 2021-2027, makes it possible to finance the installation of engines that consume less fuel on existing ships, or optimized trawling gear (larger meshes or less touching the bottom) to consume less energy.

But for this to be effective, it is necessary to “revise” the very strict limitations imposed by Brussels on the capacity of the ships, to take into account the necessarily larger space of these new engines, annoyed the Spanish Minister Luis Planas.

According to a report published in February by the NGO Oceana, slowing the speed by half a knot would also save 15% fuel… at the cost of a reduction in catches.

The NGO called above all for a ban on bottom trawling, the fishing technique requiring the most fuel in liters per kilo of fish landed and releasing the carbon trapped in the sea floor – but the efforts of Brussels to restrict this practice come up against protests from Madrid and Paris.

– The taboo of fuel subsidies –

The general opinion is that a major renewal of the fleet seems unavoidable.

“For our aging ships, a simple change of engine is neither realistic nor sufficient to aim for decarbonization: it would be like grafting a heart to a nonagenarian. And the new propulsion technologies will require a complete overhaul”, warns Daniel Voces, director-general of Europêche, the main organization in the sector.

Difficult for fishing companies, in particular small and medium-sized ones, already under financial pressure to engage in the purchase of new boats without support.

However, the FEAMPA does not provide any aid for the construction of new ships: “we must break this taboo”, insists Mr. Planas, considering it necessary to beef up public funding in the next multi-annual budget of the EU to attract private investment.

Deeming the FEAMPA to be very insufficient in the face of the colossal sums at stake, Pierre Karleskind, president (Renew, center) of the Fisheries Committee in the European Parliament, defends the use of the European Investment Bank (EIB)… but which cannot lend to fishing companies. “We must lift this lock,” he said.

For the time being, “there is no question of dedicating a new fund” to the purchase of ships, but “rather of using all the existing financial tools” to support research and “create a dynamic”, underlines Mr. Sinkevicius, believing that “the transition will also have to be financed by the sector itself”.

Blind spot of the discussions in Vigo: the generous fossil fuel subsidies for fishing, lambasted by environmental NGOs who believe that their maintenance discourages the greening of fishing practices.

“It’s a big taboo. We will not escape their elimination, but it must be done intelligently, in parallel with the transition: if overnight we stop subsidies, we kill the European fishing tool”, warns Mr. Karleskind.

“These subsidies are necessary in this difficult period (…). We must get rid of them very gradually, but the problem remains the availability of technologies” that consume less energy, abounds Virginijus Sinkevicius.

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