🐟 Fishing series: The scandal of electric fishing

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According to latest study (2019)[1], population of sole has decreased by 57%
in the areas where electric pulse fishing was authorized

You may have heard the term “electric fishing” before. If you have, it is most likely due to the fact that “electric fishing” has turned out to be an ongoing scandal-story followed by the press and NGOs since the end of the millennia. And the main actor of this scandal is: The Netherlands.

In fact, the green country, famous for its windmills and its peaceful pairies, may appear has one of the most advanced actors of the fight against climate change, whereas in reality the Netherlands is home to multiple institutions[2] and lobbies[3] which do not shy away from breaking the law to reach maximum productivity.

To that end, the scandal of “Electric fishing” has allowed NGOs[4] and the international community to shine a light on the Netherlands’ shameless violations of European Union laws, its extensive lobbying on the European Commission and its total indifference towards the state of the marine life in general.

But what is “Electric fishing”?

A pulse fishing trawl

If the first image that comes to your mind is of fisherman, fishing rod in hand, electrocuting fishes, you are not too far off…

“Electric fishing” also called “Pulse fishing” is a technic designed to catch flat fish (such as sole or plaice) and crustaceans hiding under the sand at the bottom of the sea. It consists of a giant net equipped with electrodes, dragged by a boat across the sea bed. This net creates an electric field which knocks out the fish within its reach. Under shock and unable to move, the fish then leap into the net, which allows the fishermen to simply scoop them up by the ton.

Click on this video to get a clearer idea of the system.
— See note below[5]

Impact of electric fishing on the environment and marine life

The argument of Fuel

Illustration produced by VisNed, one of the most powerful dutch fishing lobby

Before the invention of pulse fishing or “pulse trawling”, fishing boats would only rely on “beam trawling”, which consists of dragging heavy chains along the sea bed to dislodge mollusks and flat fishes hiding under the sand at the bottom of the sea. This method, which has a devastative impact on the sea beds and unintentionally allows the catch of unwanted species, is also very costly. Indeed, trawling calls on large amounts of diesel to allow the dragging of the chain and net.

Pulse fishing was therefore advertised by the dutch as a “climate friendly”, less calorific alternative than conventional trawling with numbers such as 46% less fuel. These incredible numbers on which the dutch relied to advocate for more pulse trawling are however challenged by french NGO Bloom which argues that electric trawlers use slightly less fuel[6] because they manage to catch their fish quota much faster thanks to their efficient gear.

The effect on marine life

The bi-catch of an electric trawler.
Scan of a fish’s spine broken by the shock of the pulse

The electric current, which was meant to knock the fish out for a few minutes, was actually proven to make fish undergo violent convulsions, often leading fish touched by the pulse to be injured or to die.

50% to 70% of northern sea cod in the array of the electric arc are said to be left with a broken spine and internal bleeding[7]. And indeed, since electric fishing is in use in the North Sea, the area[8] has seen the number of sea-bed species decrease by 57%[1]. Sole population has been reduced by x2.6 and thornback rays by half. This area, on the other hand, is today home to many more fragile brittle stars[9] and hermit crabs, the latter being a scavenger. “This shows that the sea floor are highly disturbed. The invasion of these species is a sign of general stress of the ecosystem, which is losing biodiversity and resilience”.
The inability of electric trawlers to fill their sole quota last year is perhaps not unrelated to this devastation…

These are few between many detrimental impacts of pulse fishing on the environment. (to learn more on the matter, you can read through: Bloom’s document which references many detailed studies.

The dutch Scandal

A map showing the area for which exemptions were granted

Note: (The Soft Protest Digest wants to thank French association Bloom for its help on piecing the whole affair together).

If pulse electric fishing is a technic used since the 1970s, most countries (including China) came to the conclusion that its effect on marine life were destructive which led to the European ban of 1998.

The law was however quickly ratified (unofficially as a result of the work of the dutch lobby), allowing a maximum of 5% of the fleet of each EU country to pursue electric trawling for research purposes.

From 2006 onwards, the EU granted up to 84 illegal permits to the Netherlands, which allowed it to equip around 40% of its total fleet with electric pulse systems.

The European commission seemingly omitted to mention a scientific document delivered by the STECF[10] a month earlier. This report stated that electric pulse fishing still seemed to be detrimental for marine life and that multiple problems related to the practice would have to be solved before granting any permit. If there seems to be no proof of this so-called “lobby work” of the dutch, the facts are that the European overpassed its own scientific commission to grant these permits.

Since 2007, at least 21.5 million€ of public subsidies have been allocated to the development of the industrial electric fishing fleet in the Netherlands for research that was never conducted.
Moreover, EU laws also demand that, if commercial fishing activities occur during the conduct of scientific research, the value of the catch be paid back to public authorities to avoid scientific research being used to generate undue profits — this law was of course never applied.

Acknowledgment of the scandal by the Netherlands

Acknowledgment by the dutch government

March 2018, dutch minister Carola Schouten publicly admitted[11] to the dutch parliament, that scientific research had not yet been carried out when the European Commission was asked by the dutch to issue additional licenses:

Even when it was clear that our scientific research into pulse fishing was not yet underway, the committee gave permission for a third party on fishing boats.”

Acknowledgment of the Wageningen University

A scientific report on the impact of pulse fishing[12] was published in 2015 by a group of Dutch, Belgian and German scientists. All dutch scientists participating in the report are members of the IMARES, the marine research organ of the Wageningen University, officially in charge of the so-called “research” pursued by the dutch fleet. In this report, the dutch acknowledge for the first time that their report is inconclusive and that the permits delivered by the EU are, in fact, used by the Netherlands for commercial purposes.

The issuing of 84 licences to carry out further scientific data collection is not in the spirit of the previous advice and that such a level of expansion is not justified from a scientific perspective. This level of scientific derogations amounts to around 35% of the entire Dutch beam trawl fleet greater than 18m in overall length (based on STECF data), which potentially could use the pulse trawl to target flatfish. This is well in excess of the 5% limit included in the current legislation. At this level this is essentially permitting a commercial fishery under the guise of scientific research.

Adriaan Rijnsdorp, organic fisherman and researcher from the influential Wageningen University (the one officially conducting the research on the electric pulse fishing boats), also stated[13] in 2018:

The Netherlands have gone beyond the legal framework in recent years by expanding the number of temporary permits. It seemed experimental, but researchers have never written a proposal for a research program that required 84 vessels […] Fishing with electric 'pulse' trawlers is just more profitable”.

The state of electric pulse fishing in 2020

Tweet from the director of the 2nd largest fishing lobby in the NL after ban: “Bad news from Brussels {…} it is a dramatic vote for the dutch fishing fleet which conducted extensive research on this innovative and sustainable technic”

The ban of electric pulse fishing

In January 2018, thanks to the union of multiple ecological parties and NGOs, partly piloted by french association Bloom, the debate over electric pulse fishing was relied by various european politicians. At the wake of the 2018 vote for its complete ban, VisNed, the largest dutch fishing lobby started to hand over documents singing the praise of the technic to the deputies of the European parliament inside of Brussels’s parliament.

On January 16th, the European Parliament voted 402 to 232 for the total and final ban of electric fishing in Europe, to come into application on July 2021.

After a rollercoaster of news (from the creation of dutch task force to lobby in the EU parliament against the application of the ban, multiple arrestations of dutch electric vessels full of illegally fished sole, destabilization campaigns against multiple NGOs by dutch newspapers and the call from dutch prime minister Mark Rutte from France and Germany to rally the Netherlands in its scientific research), the transition period prior to the complete ban started in August 2019.

Since the ban (2019 to present)

Since summer 2019 the Netherlands has continued to break European law. Among its former fleet of 84 electric pulse fishing boats, still 42 of them are active today. While the latest regulation allows them to keep a maximum of 14 boats to pursue research (5% of its fleet) until the end of the transition period, the Netherlands seems determined to pursue its electric exploitation of the Northern sea.

In October 2019, dutch agriculture minister Carola Schouten has notified the Dutch government she would seizing the Justice Court of the European Union to file against the ban on electric fishing and would be extending all 42 permits until July 2021.

Annexe: the dutch sing for the loss of their fleet

Dutch singer Geke’s Tiental composed a song titled “Jealousy” in honor of electric trawl fishermen. According to her, French fishermen are jealous of the Dutch who managed to innovate and become a leader of the field.

Click here for music video

Related images


  1. 1.0 1.1 See latest study (2019) delivered by Cefas / here
  2. We can here reference the powerful Wageningen University which slogan says it all: “To explore the potential of nature to improve the quality of life.
  3. We can here mention “VisNed”
  4. In particular, french NGO Bloom, which played a major part in the affair.
  5. Declaimer: It is produced by “pulsefishing.eu” which is primarily funded by the “Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality”. It, therefore, relies on biased numbers.
  6. An electric trawler consumes 2.21 litres of fuel per kilo of fish caught, whereas a beam trawler consumes 2.36 l/kg
  7. The effect of electric pulse stimulation to juvenile cod and cod of commercial landing size. IMARES Report C141/11. Available here
    Pulse trawl fishing: characteristics of the electrical stimulation and the effect on behavior and injuries of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua). ICES Journal of Marine Science 73(6): 1557-1569.
  8. We are here talking about the area of the North Sea in which pulse fishing was authorized by the EU
  9. Close to the starfish
  10. The Scientific, Technical And Economic Committee For Fisheries - scientific organ of experts of the European commission
  11. See NOS article here
  12. Click here to read full report
  13. BioNieuws, edition of January 27 2018