An English-language sign at the fishermen’s pier in the northern Adriatic town of Umag reads: “This fishing port was rebuilt with the support of the European Union.”
However, most of the 3,700 fishermen who ply their trade in Croatia’s eastern Adriatic fear that the nation’s accession to the bloc tomorrow and strict new laws and regulations that come with it may drive the last nail into their coffin.
“I’m afraid we’re in for a lot of unpleasant surprises,” said Danilo Latin, whose family have been fishermen for four generations.
“We’ll lose the subsidies. We’ll have to change our nets, fish further from the shore, there will be more competition and new restrictions, so we’re looking at harder times,” he said.
The morning’s fishing foray was cut short by a summer storm and yielded only a couple of crabs and small octopus.
Croatia’s Adriatic is small and relatively shallow and fishermen use traditional nets that are not compliant with the Common Fishing Policy, modeled mostly on fishing in the Atlantic.
“The transition will cost me at least 100,000 kuna [US$17,500] because of all the tools I will no longer be able to use. And I’ll get no financial compensation,” said Latin, waving tanned, callused hands in the air.
His complaint echoes the fears of most local fishermen, who say that successive Zagreb governments that negotiated EU entry from 2005 to 2011 did nothing to protect their interest.
“There were no negotiations whatsoever. We gained nothing through the process. We only found out that there is no alternative but to accept what had been offered,” Latin said.
On top of specifying everything, from the depth of trawl nets to the size of meshes, the EU entry will open the eastern Adriatic to any fishing vessel from the EU. Most concerns are about the vastly superior fleet from EU neighbor Italy, whose boats often poached in Croatian waters in the past.
“There is still three to four times more fish on this side of the Adriatic. So the Italians’ interest is huge and we need to work with Italy to protect the Adriatic’s resources,” Croatian Assistant Minister of Agriculture and fishing expert Miro Kucic said.
Croatia’s territorial waters will remain off limits to foreigners, but even that can be circumvented.
“All an Italian fisherman needs to do is find a Croatian counterpart ready to close shop and sell his license, open a company in Croatia and they’re good to go,” Latin said.
Kucic said Croatia can start fighting for its fishermen only now, as an EU member.
“You couldn’t possibly expect that the EU would accept our laws during the negotiations, but now we can be an equal partner and start working with Italy and Slovenia, with whom we share similar problems in the Adriatic, to present our case,” he said.
The aim is to make exceptions to the Common Fishing Policy, he said, taking into account the specifics of the Adriatic, which is shallow in the north and deep in the south.
“Northern and western Europe, which effectively wrote the maritime laws, has 10 species of fish for commercial fishing. In the Adriatic, we have 80, plus hundreds of different tools the rest of Europe doesn’t know. So we need to fight now,” he said.
However, even if they succeed, it may come too late for many.
“Ten years ago, fishing was still prosperous and everyone was buying boats. Now, it’s declining and people are closing their trades,” said Tonci Trevizan, who heads the fishermen’s guild for the northern Istrian Peninsula.