An English-language sign at the fishermen's pier in the Croatian 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 EU on 1 July, and strict new laws and regulations that come with it, may be the end of their jobs.

"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.

Croatia's Adriatic is small and relatively shallow and fishermen use traditional nets that are not compliant with the Common Fisheries Policy, or CFP, modelled mostly on fishing in the Atlantic.

"The transition will cost me at least 100,000 kuna [€13,400] because of all the tools I will no longer be able to use. And I'll get no financial compensation," said Latin.

His complaint echoes the fears of many 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.

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 neighbour 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 Kučić, 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.

Kučić 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 CFP, 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.

Industry in decline

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 Tonči Trevižan, 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."

Neighbouring 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 the European laws, the European-size nets, the size of fish,” said 64-year old Loredano Pugliese, from the port of Izola, which has watched its fishing fleet dwindle from almost 400 boats to about 30 in the last decade.

"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.