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
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.”
RIGHT Environmental police officers on patrol in the waters off Marseille. LEFT Calanques national park, scene of the poaching gang’s crimes.
LEFT Endangered dusky groupers were among the 4.5 tonnes of fish sold by the gang.
ABOVE Fishermen in Marseille say the black market has long been a problem.
RIGHT Environmental police inspectors on patrol in the national park.