Divers who are plun­der­ing France’s en­dan­gered species Dis­patch,

The Calan­ques na­tional park was tar­geted by a gang who sold its catch to smart restau­rants. Now in a land­mark case, they will have to pay ‘en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­ages’ to the park

The Observer - - Worlcdhallenge - An­gelique Chrisafis

Jo­han Jimenez stood on a cliff, peer­ing through binoc­u­lars at a pic­turesque in­let in this un­spoiled corner of the Mediter­ranean near Mar­seille. “They don’t think any­one is watch­ing from up here on land,” said the armed guard from the en­vi­ron­men­tal po­lice, scan­ning the rocks be­low for day-trip­pers ca­su­ally drop­ping fish­ing lines into its pro­tected wa­ters. “But we can al­ways get down there to stop them.”

If France’s Calan­ques na­tional park – which stretches across lime­stone cliffs, for­est, sea and is­lands be­tween Mar­seille and La Cio­tat – has stepped up pa­trols to pro­tect its en­dan­gered species and ecosys­tem, it is be­cause it has fallen prey to a bru­tal type of or­gan­ised un­der­wa­ter crime. Mafia-style fish poach­ers are threat­en­ing its at­tempts to re­pop­u­late the over­ex­ploited wa­ters of the Mediter­ranean.

This year, four men – in­clud­ing cham­pion free­d­ivers able to hold their breath to depths of up to 40 me­tres – were con­victed over a ma­jor poach­ing op­er­a­tion. For years, they had crept into the park’s pro­tected sea zones and stolen huge quan­ti­ties of of­ten en­dan­gered fish to sell il­le­gally to some of the smartest restau­rants in Mar­seille.

Deemed “evil” by one lawyer, called “pi­rates of the Medit­ter­anean' by oth­ers, the men – who had been armed with har­poon guns - said in court that steal­ing fish was sim­ply a way to earn a bit of cash. They went out in the early morn­ing, at night or in bad weather, drop­ping off divers by boat and hid­ing their catch un­der­wa­ter or in se­cret com­part­ments un­der boats.

All had day jobs, rang­ing from work­ing for a san­i­ta­tion com­pany to run­ning a tuk-tuk busi­ness or train­ing in the health ser­vice. They made at least €160,000 (£140,000) in per­sonal profit af­ter pil­lag­ing at least 4.5 tonnes of fish and seafood be­tween 2015 and 2017. Their catch ranged from sea urchins and oc­to­pus to the en­dan­gered dusky grouper and corb – largely stolen from pro­tected no-fish­ing zones that were put in place when the park was cre­ated six years ago as an an­swer to the Mediter­ranean’s over­fish­ing cri­sis.

The men ar­gued they had sim­ply been mak­ing use of their phys­i­cal tal­ent for free­d­iv­ing, that they had been driven by the “adren­a­line” of the chase. One diver, an ath­lete who had won com­pe­ti­tions, said he al­ways got a kick out of plung­ing deep and “at­tract­ing fish”.

But dur­ing a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion on the scale of those that tar­get drug gangs or gun­run­ners, wire taps re­vealed that the men who claimed they had “a pas­sion for the sea” cared noth­ing for con­ser­va­tion.

“Drop me off at Riou [is­land], I’m go­ing to fuck up some sea urchins,” the group’s 40-year-old or­gan­iser boasted by phone.

The men were given sus­pended prison sen­tences of up to 18 months and were banned from the Calan­ques na­tional park. But cru­cially there will be a land­mark civil case this win­ter, where a court will make the first rul­ing of its kind over how much money in “en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­ages” those found guilty must pay to the park.

The fine, ex­pected to be more than €450,000, would set a prece­dent in a case that has led to soul-search­ing about how, in an era of grow­ing aware­ness of cli­mate change and over­fish­ing, in­di­vid­u­als’ re­la­tion­ship with the sea can still be driven by quick profit.

“The prices these fish were be­ing sold on for is like sell­ing a Cézanne paint­ing for the price of fire­wood – it’s cat­a­strophic,” said Charles-François Boudouresque, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Mediter­ranean In­sti­tute of Oceanog­ra­phy, point­ing out that price­less ma­rine life had been plun­dered for bar­gain black-mar­ket sales.

Ac­cord­ing to Boudouresque, poach­ers tar­geted the larger, older fe­males of pro­tected en­dan­gered species, such as the dusky grouper or the corb, which are “em­blem­atic of the Mediter­ranean”. Be­cause a fish’s fer­til­ity in­creases with age, the poach-

ers were ef­fec­tively “tak­ing away the most ef­fi­cient part of the re­pro­duc­tion of these species”.

The poach­ers be­lieved, he said, that they could op­er­ate with com­plete im­punity. “They never imag­ined that their phones might be tapped, so they talked about ev­ery­thing on the phone. Now, af­ter this court case, poach­ers know what they’re risk­ing.”

The fish­mon­gers and restau­ra­teurs who bought the fish weren’t named in court be­cause they had in­stead agreed to at­tend aware­ness classes and pay fines. Some en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists felt that they should have faced stiffer sanc­tions.

“I would have liked the [restau­ra­teurs] to own up,” said one of the con­victed divers in court. He said they knew very well where the fish came from and they didn’t care. One poacher said: “At Christ­mas, the restau­rants pushed us to get more.”

There was noth­ing to sug­gest that the restau­rants’ cus­tomers, who were some­times pay­ing more than €30 for a dish, knew they were eat­ing il­le­gally caught fish. But the case has raised aware­ness of the need to ask more about where a catch comes from.

At Mar­seille’s old port, as fish­sellers cried: “Eat fresh! Eat well!”, pro­fes­sional fish­er­men lamented that the black mar­ket in seafood was a lon­grun­ning prob­lem.

Fer­nando Ma­tias, 68, had been out fish­ing since 3am in wa­ters far away from the na­tional park. “There has al­ways been il­le­gal fish­ing but at least now the po­lice and jus­tice sys­tem are act­ing on it, be­cause these peo­ple are do­ing a lot of harm to na­ture,” he said. “But it’s not just poach­ers, it’s cli­mate change, in­dus­trial pol­lu­tion poured into the sea – there is no fu­ture in fish­ing,” he sighed.

The Calan­ques na­tional park is unique in the Med in that it com­bines vast land, sea and is­land ar­eas while nudg­ing up against ur­ban set­tle­ments, namely France’s sec­ond-big­gest city, Mar­seille. It has 60 en­dan­gered, rare or pro­tected ma­rine species and 140 pro­tected an­i­mal and plant species on land. How­ever, with more than two mil­lion vis­i­tors a year, it has not shut it­self off from hu­mankind, but in­stead tries to ed­u­cate peo­ple on how to live along­side na­ture. Lim­ited leisure and pro­fes­sional fish­ing of cer­tain species is al­lowed, and is heav­ily mon­i­tored. In­deed it was anony­mous let­ters from lo­cal divers that tipped off po­lice to the poach­ers.

François Bland, the di­rec­tor of the park, said the Calan­ques’ no-fish­ing zones did not just pro­tect bio­di­ver­sity in the na­tional park but would “en­rich the whole ma­rine area”.

Back on the high wooded ar­eas of the park, the en­vi­ron­men­tal guard Jimenez was pa­trolling, lis­ten­ing out for hunters’ shots, watch­ing for il­le­gal campers and even for cig­a­rettes – com­pletely banned be­cause of the risk of for­est fires.

One man who had just fin­ished smok­ing near his car at a beau­ti­ful look­out point was re­minded of the rules. He blushed and said: “I would never leave a cig­a­rette butt on the ground. I know the dam­age they do, I’m a fish­er­man.”

Gwen­dal Ran­nou of the lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal po­lice said: “We want to pro­tect the park, not close it off. Just say­ing ‘No’ doesn’t work. You have to ex­plain to peo­ple what’s at stake. It’s about mak­ing peo­ple un­der­stand how to live along­side na­ture.”

Getty Alamy

RIGHT En­vi­ron­men­tal po­lice of­fi­cers on pa­trol in the wa­ters off Mar­seille. LEFT Calan­ques na­tional park, scene of the poach­ing gang’s crimes.

Alamy

LEFT En­dan­gered dusky groupers were among the 4.5 tonnes of fish sold by the gang.

Getty

ABOVE Fish­er­men in Mar­seille say the black mar­ket has long been a prob­lem.

Getty

RIGHT En­vi­ron­men­tal po­lice in­spec­tors on pa­trol in the na­tional park.

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