By Zoran Radosavljevic
UMAG, Croatia (Reuters) - 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".
But most of the 3,700 fishermen who ply their trade in Croatia's eastern Adriatic fear that the country's accession to the bloc on July 1, 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 ($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 calloused hands in the air.
His complaint echoes the fears of most local fishermen, who say that successive Zagreb governments who 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.
NEW COSTS, MORE COMPETITION
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 3 to 4 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," said Miro Kucic, a fishing expert and assistant minister of agriculture.
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 the shop and sell his license, open a company in Croatia and they're good to go," said Latin.
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, he said, was to make exceptions to the Common Fishing Policy, 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.
A DYING BREED
But 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.
"Now we have new norms, new taxes, book keeping. We are treated as real companies, whereas we are really only small family trades and we just cannot keep up with all the demands".
In 1978, when he first took to the sea, fishermen had only compasses to navigate by. Nets were pulled out by hand, a back-breaking process made redundant by modern day winches, but the catch was plenty.
"Today we have electronic and hydraulic equipment but we catch much less fish than we did 30 years ago. And you need to have an accountant ready every time you go to the sea. So I don't see any future in this," he said. His gross annual revenue amounts to 30,000 euros at most, he said.
Neighboring Slovenia, which shares a small part of the northern Adriatic, joined the EU in 2004 and has already seen a decline of its fishing.
"It's going from bad to worse and is quite disastrous now," said 64-year old Loredano Pugliese, from the port of Izola, speaking in a mixture of Italian, Slovenian and Croatian.
Izola was a former stalwart of Slovenia's fishing industry but has gone from almost 400 fishing boats to about 30 in the last decade.
"It's the European laws, the European-size nets, the size of fish. Europe wants big fish and we only have smaller fish here. Then you have to weigh every fish, to the last ounce, fill in the paperwork. If this keeps up, we'll need to have a university degree to handle those documents," Pugliese said.
"This is a small sea and they want us to act as if this was a big sea. In a few years, there will be no fishermen left here and I am afraid that's what will happen to my Croatian friends, too," he said. ($1 = 5.7180 Croatian kunas)
(Reporting by Zoran Radosavljevic; editing by Ralph Boulton)