French national park claims €450k in first poach case

A view from the bottom of the Calanque d'En Vau, in the Calanques national park, near Marseille

A national park in south east France has become the first in the country to bring a case to court to demand compensation - to the tune of €450,000 - from illegal poachers, citing “ecological damage”.

It is the first case of its kind to be heard in court in France, after the terms were written into the civil code in 2016. The case was heard on Friday, November 8.

The parc national de Calanques, which is on the Mediterranean coast south of Marseille (Bouches-du-Rhône, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur), is seeking damages from four poachers, who it has accused of illegally poaching tonnes of fish from the sea in the national park.

Lawyer for the park, Sébastien Mabile, said: “The national park’s demand is justified, and I have asked the judge to assert the principle of law in this historic case.”

Mr Mabile said that 4.5 tonnes of fish and seafood had been illegally taken from the protected waters, which equated to “a step back of three to four years on the ‘reserve status’ of the biomass”.

This status is defined by growth levels of the biomass in the non-fishing areas.

In court, one emeritus director of science research centre le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and former member of the Calanques national park administrative council, Denise Bellan-Santini, said she particularly regretted the fact that the poachers had fished “predators, such as the grouper fish” from the waters.

She said: “When a poacher fishes a 10kg grouper, the impact on the wider biomass is multiplied by 10”, because of the effect this has on the wider food chain.

Lawyer Mr Mabile added that the park was also seeking €100,000 from the poachers for “moral damages”, and €18,000 in damages from the poachers’ clients, including six restaurateurs with sites in Marseille, who benefitted from the poaching.

Mr Mabile said: “[These business owners] bought fish from non-professional fishermen, that had been punctured and harpooned...but they benefited from a very favourable system.”

He added that these businesses had also managed to avoid court cases, and had individually received fines of just €800-1,500 each.

Lawyers for the restaurants requested that the court “not give in to political and media pressure”, and to “bring the case back down to size”, as it referred to “only a few fish” and just “several dozen sea urchins”.

The case from the park comes after the poachers were already judged in the penal court in Marseille for the crimes, with their punishments ranging from 15 to 18 months suspended sentences for illegal hunting with a harpoon over the course of more than four years.

The court will now deliberate, with the final decision expected on March 6, 2020.

The Calanques National Park, or le Parc national de Calanques, was established in 2012, and is an IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) category II national park.

It spans across 520km2, of which just 85 km2 is land. The rest is marine area and sea.

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