Factsheet - Illegal Driftnets

"Fishy Business - The Illegal Driftnet Fishery" (Part 3) Introduction

Swordfish. Photo: Barbara Mussi

As fishing industries and fishing technology develop to meet an expanding human population and resulting worldwide demand for fish, fish populations have subsequently declined. In many parts of the world, fishing represents not only a source of food but also a way of life and an integral part of local culture.

As fish stocks wane, competition increases. Conflicts between fishermen and the protection of natural resources have increased, and some governments have recognized the need to place limits on fishing activities to preserve both the marine ecosystems and the fishing industry. However illegal and wasteful fisheries continue in many countries and on the high seas. Where legislation does exist, enforcement is often weak.

The illegal driftnet fishery has been a highly controversial issue in the last few decades. Driftnetting exemplifies the battle between fisheries management, fishing methods and the protection of the global commons.

The Illegal Driftnet Fishery -

Driftnets are large floating nets, which may be employed in the open ocean or along the coast, often stretching for many miles. They are designed to trap and entangle large fish such as tuna and swordfish. The largest driftnets used were more than 50 kilometers (30 miles) in length, extending to a depth of 30 meters (one hundred feet) from the surface.

Driftnets are designed to be resistant to breakage and degradation, and invisible to fish and most other species. Unfortunately, the design of the nets does not allow them to be very selective in what is actually caught in the net, and the result is a high level of bycatch, or the catch of non-targeted species.

Because driftnets are generally employed in the open ocean, they are likely to entangle large pelagic species, including dolphins, whales, sharks, turtles, and rays. Their propensity to kill so many large animals has earned driftnets the nickname "walls of death."

Driftnet fishing practices have historically had dramatic effects on populations of a number of large animals. As they are highly efficient and catch considerable numbers of fish at a time, their use has resulted in a number of conflicts among fishermen being out-competed by their use. In addition to these threats to species, it is unknown what the cumulative effect on the ecosystem might be of eliminating so many of its top predators.

As scientists and non-governmental organizations made public the impact of driftnets on cetaceans and other animals, and as conflicts among fishermen of different nations increased, legal actions were taken to restrict their use. The United Nations recommended a ban on the use of large-scale driftnetting operations on the high seas by all member states, beginning December 31, 1992. Most nations complied with the UN resolution, with many also banning the use of driftnets in their own waters. However, the UN Resolution was not specific about what constitutes "large-scale" driftnet fishing, and the practice still continues in many forms around the world. Fifteen years after the UN resolution on driftnetting took effect, driftnets still pose a threat to cetaceans and other marine species.

A boat and driftnet. Driftnets can be 10-20 kilometers in length. Photo Courtesy of Oceana


A driftnet boat. Photo - Juan Cuetos/Oceana

Driftnetting in the Mediterranean Sea -

While many nations responded to the UN Resolution quickly with a full ban on driftnet fishing, the European Union attempted to phase the practice out slowly, succumbing to political pressure and citing the economic needs of fishermen dependent on driftnets for their livelihood. The result has been widespread non-compliance throughout the Mediterranean Sea. A number of nations continue to use driftnets, with some 500 boats from Italy, France, Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria and possibly others, fishing in defiance of international agreement and national law.

Finally, the use of driftnets was prohibited in European Union waters and on the high seas for EU flagged vessels in 2002, and in 2005 by General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM). This illegal fishing activity, however, persists in Community waters and by EU flagged vessels on the high seas completely disregarding the current legislation.

Oceana has campaigned against the illegal use of driftnets in the Mediterranean during three consecutive years. The aim of this campaign is to document the use of this illegal fishing gear, highlighting the reasons it persists, while aiming to draw the attention of relevant authorities and decision-makers to urge them to take action, five years after the driftnet ban came into effect.

This dolphin died after being entangled in a driftnet.

Bycatch -

The characteristics of driftnets that make them so efficient at catching fish unfortunately make them efficient at catching many other animals as well. They are heavily criticized for being wasteful, as they catch many fish and other animals in addition to the species being targeted. The nets used are designed to maintain the same density as seawater and to be invisible to the fish they target; these factors make them essentially invisible to most other animals as well. As they often extend over many miles, the nets can be extremely difficult for animals to avoid. The unselective nature of the nets results in a high level of bycatch, or the catch of non-targeted species, in addition to catching large numbers of the targeted species. The capture of non-target species is what is known as bycatch.

The most significant criticism of driftnets has to do with the type of bycatch they produce. Because driftnets are often times employed in the open ocean, they are likely to entrap large pelagic species, including dolphins, whales, sharks, turtles, and rays. Their placement at the surface also means they catch large numbers of air-breathing animals, notably marine mammals and turtles.

Overfishing -

As well as being an illegal fishery, driftnetting contributes to the overfishing of targeted marine species in the Mediterranean Sea.

Overfishing simply means catching too many fish; fishing so much that the fish cannot sustain their population. The fish get fewer and fewer, until finally there are not enough left to catch.

The Current State of Global Fisheries -

The following figures refer to global fisheries and are published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

  • 52% of fish stocks are fully exploited.
  • 20% are moderately exploited.
  • 17% are overexploited.
  • 7% are depleted.
  • 1% is recovering from depletion.

These figures show that over 25% of all the world's fish stocks are either overexploited or depleted. Another 52% is fully exploited, and in imminent danger of overexploitation Therefore, a total of almost 80% of the world's fisheries are fully- to over-exploited, depleted, or in a state of collapse. Worldwide about 90% of the stocks of large predatory fish stocks are already gone. As a result of overfishing and illegal fisheries, we are losing species as well as entire ecosystems. We are also at risk of losing a valuable food source many people are dependant upon.

What is needed to make a change?

The effects of overfishing and illegal fishing are still reversible if we choose to act now. In some situations it might only take a decade, in other situations it may take much longer. Every long-term successful and sustainable fishery, near-shore or high-seas, needs to be managed according to some basic rules: Catch limits. A constantly reassessed, scientifically determined, limit on the total number of fish caught and landed by a fishery. Politics and short time economical incentives should have no role in this. Controls on bycatch. The use of techniques or management rules to prevent the unintentional killing and disposal of fish, crustaceans and other oceanic life not part of the target catch or landed. Protection of pristine and important habitats. The key parts in ecosystems need full protection from destructive fisheries; e.g. the spawning and nursing grounds of fish, delicate sea floor, unique unexplored habitats, and corals. Monitoring and Enforcement. A monitoring system to ensure fishers do not -

  • use illegal gear.
  • land more fish than they are allowed.
  • fish in protected or closed areas.

What can I do to help?

Individuals cannot solve the global problem alone, together we need to pressure politicians to strengthen and enforce international treaties and national laws. However, as individuals we can make responsible choices. Our power as consumers dictates fisheries markets. Empower yourself - Knowledge is power. Read about the issues of illegal fishing and overfishing and know where the fish at your local market comes from. Select your seafood wisely - Select seafoods that are healthy for the oceans and safe to eat. There are numerous good fish food guides available. (See below in the 'links' section)

Share your knowledge - Talk to you friends and family about what you have learned.

Let your voice be heard. Write to your elected officials or political party and tell them you are concerned about illegal and destructive fishing methods. Ask them what they are doing to manage our fisheries and oceans in a sustainable manner.


For more information about what you can do to help, look at the following links:

  • OCEANA - www.oceana.org Oceana campaigns to protect and restore the world's oceans, with a specific focus on policy change and enforcement to reduce pollution and to prevent the irreversible collapse of fish populations, marine mammals and other sea life.
  • The Marine Stewardship Council - www.msc.org The Marine Stewardship Council promotes sustainable fisheries practices. Visit the site for help in selecting the best environmental choices in seafood.
  • Blue Ocean Institute - www.blueocean.org Blue Ocean Institute works to inspire a closer relationship with the sea through science, art, and literature. We develop conservation solutions that are compassionate to people as well as to ocean wildlife, and we share reliable information that enlightens personal choices, instills hope, and helps restore living abundance in the ocean.
  • "Fishphone" - www.fishphone.org An initiative of the Blue Ocean Institute. This is a mobile phone formatted webpage designed to provide easy navigation and download capability for environmentally conscious and tech-savvy cell phone and PDA users. FishPhone helps restaurant patrons, supermarket shoppers and chefs make healthy, informed, and sustainable choices when deciding which fish is right for them—and the environment.
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium - Seafood Watch - www.mbayaq.org/cr/SeafoodWatch Browse a list of best seafood choices, or print a Seafood Watch Guide to take with you.
  • Oceans Alive - www.oceansalive.org Oceans alive 'eat smart' program, helps you select seafoods that are caught or farmed responsibly. guide can help you choose fish that are healthy for the oceans and safe to eat.
  • WWF - www.panda.org WWF is a global environmental organization. Their mission is to to stop the degradation of the planet's natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature.
  • Delphis Mediterranean Dolphin Conservation - www.delphismdc.org A non-profit organization for the welfare of Mediterranean dolphins in Ischia, Italy.

Genevieve Johnson has taught middle and high school students in the area of Environmental Education for over 12 years. She has also spent five years as a cetacean field researcher on an around the world science and education expedition. As well as teaching in a classroom, Genevieve designed the 'Class from the Sea' and 'Ocean Encounters' programs, designing curriculum and linking with students around the globe from the research vessel.