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Driftnet Fishing and Freedom of the High Seas

What is this?

Driftnets are known as “walls of death” or “curtains of death” for marine wildlife. They are a type of gill net that fishing vessels use.  Gill nets are manufactured to be invisible in the water.  The netting slides behind the gill covers of fish and leaves them inextricably caught.


  • Driftnets were originally small, attached to the back of small fishing vessels and biodegradable.  They are now immense, up to 50 kilometers long and are made of nylon.


  • The nets are suited with floats and weights to create a wall that moves through the water catching everything in its path.  The weights crush anything on the bottom of the ocean and dredge up all life forms and habitats there.

What impact does it have?



Overfishing is the taking of marine life to an unsustainable biological and economic level.


  • The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization made an assessment on global fish stocks resulting from overfishing in 2005.







52% of world fish stocks are completely depleted

21% of fish stocks are moderately exploited

17% of fish stocks are overexploited

7% of fish stocks are depleted

3% are underexploited

1% of fish stocks are recovering from depletion


  • The UN Food and Agriculture Organization issued a warning in 2005 that the total world consumption of fish may increase by more than 25% to 179 million tons by the year 2015.  The need to let fish populations replenish themselves is more than urgent.


  • 90% of large fish, the top predators in the food chain, are disappearing.  Cod vanished from Newfoundland in 1992.  The Big-eye tuna may be extinct in 3-5 years.


  • The journal Science reported that the world’s fisheries could collapse as soon as 2048.


  • Driftnets can have a 20-60 kilometer span and are left to waft in the water each night by more than 1000 vessels.




Bycatch is the term for incidental or accidental capture of non-target fish.  Much marine life is caught up in these nets and discarded. There is still differing definitions of what bycatch is but generally it refers to the number of incidental (kept and sold) fish and the discarded fish that are captured in driftnets.


  • A conservative estimate of the amount of bycatch per year taken by all mass fishing practices is 55.7 tons per year.


  • 100 million sharks and rays are bycatch each year.


  • 300,000 cetaceans (whales, porpoises and dolphins) are killed in nets each year.  Mammals drown in driftnets.


  • It is impossible to distinguish endangered or protected species from the target catch with a driftnet.


  • Driftnets also capture turtles, seabirds, albatross, anemones and other bottom dwelling creatures.


Other driftnet damage


  • The habitat of all marine species is destroyed, particularly coral reefs by dragging weights.


  • An estimated 500,000 undiscovered species lay on the ocean floor.  Driftnets and other mass fishing methods destroy everything they cross and drag.


  • “Ghost nets” are those driftnets that have been lost or discarded by fishing vessels.  They kill multitudes of marine mammals that get tangled up in the floating and invisible traps.

What has been done about it?

Bans and moratoriums


  • At a United Nations General Assembly in 1991, a moratorium is decreed banning the use of driftnets.


  • The European Commission follows the UN ban in 2002 and offers fishermen funds to change careers or modify their boats.


  • The International Conservation of Atlantic Tuna bans the use of driftnets in 2003.


  • The General Fisheries of the Mediterranean bans the use of driftnets both in 1997 and again in 2005.


Bycatch reduction devices (BRDs)


  • Turtle Excluding Devices (TEDs) are those that have escape hatches for turtles.  Many species of turtles are endangered or protected and are often killed by fishing nets.


  • Pingers are acoustic devices to ward off dolphins and other cetaceans.


  • Devices are attached to nets to scare off seabirds.


  • Other animal escape devices exist that are built depending upon the intended or target catch.


Marine reserves


Greenpeace has issued a call for a global network of marine reserves.  These would:


  • Close off “freedom of the high seas” loopholes


  • Ensure that fish populations could recover


  • Make the fishing industry sustainable


  • Protect the seas and ocean life


Non-government organization (NGOs) lobbying, advocacy, policing and tracking


Many organizations exist that provide public education on overfishing and illegal fishing practices, garner funds, watch legislation, bring lawsuits, patrol oceans, keep databases and collect driftnets.


The North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission


This group was established in 1993 to conserve anadromous fish, those that are born in fresh water, live in the ocean and return to fresh water to spawn.  The Commission is working to create a realistic model for the enforcement of fishing laws.  Its members (Russia, the US, Japan, Korea and Canada with some non-member support from China) communicate once a month to compare information and turn it over to the proper authorities.


  • It has established an Enforcement Procedures Working Group that involves threat analysis and vessel profiling.  Threat analysis includes past illegal activity, market conditions and pressures, political factors and deterrent measures.  A CD-rom of criminal vessel records is being created to list noncompliant vessels for future checks against illegal activities.


  • An example in action:  In April 1999 a Canadian aircraft spotted a vessel using a driftnet in US waters.  It passed the information onto the US Coast Guard.  The Coast Guard and a Russian Federal Border Service ship arrive to find a Russian ship.  The RFBS takes custody of the ship and its crew.



Fish farms


To combat growing food demand and curb overfishing, many have found fish farms to be an economical alternative.  30% of our seafood is now raised in mesh cages in the water or in concrete pools on land or indoors.

Is this action working?



  • The UN ban did not specify what large scale fishing was.


  • It took the European Commission 6 years to agree to comply with the UN moratorium.


  • The European Commission never defined what a driftnet was and so new and improved nets were created, called by different names and were used.


The ferretare is a net that was decreed to be legal by the Italian government.  It was said to be used only in coastal waters and so would not take pelagic (open ocean) fish.  It was of smaller size and mesh than former driftnets.


In 2005 the Italian government changed the decree to allow larger mesh, lengths up to 5 kilometers and usage 14 miles from shore in waters as deep as 20 miles.


The French government created the thonaille in 2003.  This not-driftnet was twice the permissible length established by the European Commission.  The EU looked the other way when the thonaille was used on those deep sea fish that the EU had listed as non-nettables.


The reluctance and disrespect by the EU of the UN ban has led to the same attitude in a host of other countries.  This disregard for the ban on driftnet fishing can be found in the continued illegal practice of driftnetting on boat from Albania, Algeria, Spain, France, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Malta, Morocco, and Monaco.


  • In 2005 the French Conseil d’ Etat proclaimed the thonaille a driftnet and therefore illegal.


  • In 2006 the European Commission created a legal definition of the driftnet.


  • 2006 food scarcity and scares saw the return of the driftnet in the North Pacific by Korean and Taiwanese boats.


  • In 2007, 500 vessels were spotted using driftnets in the Mediterranean Sea including those from Algeria, France, Italy, Morocco and Tunsia.


  • The Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association works to preserve and replenish salmon and chum.  It found 50% of the salmon and chum in catches with gillnet markings across their heads.


NGO’s—Non-government organizations


  • Repeated sightings and reports by non-government organizations have pressured governments to look more closely at continued driftnet fishing.  Their devotion has also helped research and alerted enforcement agencies to catch illegal fishing vessels in the act.


  • Many conservation laws have been passed due to the efforts on NGO’s.


Dolphin-safe tuna example


  • The dolphin-safe tuna label was an act passed largely in part because of the lobbying and advocacy of an NGO.  The labeling law only applied to the US.  Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia were still selling net-caught tuna on US shelves.


  • Outcry from NGO members forced the US to ban the tuna from these countries.


  • In 1997 anti-labeling lobbyists got the Dolphin-safe label redefined as tuna you can net if you “don’t see” or knowingly net dolphins.


  • NGOs organized a lawsuit that the district court agreed with.  The US government appealed to the federal court.  They lost and in 2001 the real dolphin safe label was on cans.


  • In 2002 a new attack on the label occurred under the Bush Administration.


  • In 2004 a federal judge said that the Bush administration based its claims on politics instead of science and upheld the authentic dolphin-safe label.


Fish farms


  • Fish farms destroy the functioning of normal ecosystems in coastal waters.


  • Coastal fish farms endanger native species with the introduction of disease and pollutants.


  • The crowding that goes on at fish farms is so stressful for fish that farmers must feed them antibiotics and pesticides.


  • The crowding also results in low concentrations of oxygen for the fish and high levels of ammonia.


  • Smaller species of wild fish are becoming overfished to feed farm-raised fish.


  • Escaped fish threaten natives with disease and viruses. 


  • Genetic diversity is threatened by farm-raised fish.


The North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission


  • In 2006 Canadian air patrol flew over international waters during September instead of the season’s normal late spring and found 25 vessels using or in possession of drift nets.  Although the number surprised them the Commission believes that driftnet fishing has declined by 90% from its 1998 peak due to enforcement efforts.

Why is this?

Freedom of the high seas


The open ocean has always been considered a lawless part of the world, not owned by any nation and so free to all.  The high seas have been considered and romanticized as being res nullius: “without law.” 


By custom and convention though, the high sea and its resources are considered to be governed by res communis: “law of the commons.”  The sea belongs to everyone.


High sea principles include:


  1. The sea cannot be misappropriated, possessed and ruled, by any private person/entity or nation.


2.  The use of the high seas and its resources by any nation must not impede the same usage by other nations.


The freedom of the high seas sentiment is still pervasive in our global cultural consciousness.

Fishing cultures


Cultures are institutions and institutions change very slowly.  Fishing cultures evolved from each people’s adaptation to their environment.  Fishing became the key to survival and an ingrained part of cultural consciousness.


Just as endangered species struggle to adapt to changing environments, so too do humans hold onto the foundations of their cultures even to the detriment of all life.


Lack of enforcement


The North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission makes a good model for international communication and synergy in conserving wildlife.  It is irresponsible to make laws without the means to enforce them.  The troublesome disregard for moratoriums against driftnet fishing has highlighted the need for procedural directions and safeguards that must accompany the passage of conservation laws.

Should it continue? On one side, there are those who are against

Can this be resolved?


We can turn it around.  Scientists believe that we can change the decimation of our fish supply within a decade by:


  • Establishing realistic and safe catch limits.


  • Setting controls on amounts of bycatch.


  • Habitat protection.


  • Coordinated and determined monitoring and enforcement of conservation laws.


Consumers have much power in what they buy or don’t buy.  Individual choices can build up the same way “marginal impacts” do on endangered species.


The public can also pressure the passage of legislation that speaks for the value of conservation practices.


Besides the driftnet


Driftnet fishing is one of many destructive and life-threatening mass fishing practices. 


  • Long line fishing makes use of several miles of line baited at intervals with hooks.  These hook creatures other than target fish and the lines tangle up all kinds of marine life.


  • Purse Seine fishing is the use of a net, a wall similar to the “wall of death.”  This net has ropes in the end that are drawn tight to capture schools as if in an enormous draw-string purse.


  • Blast fishing is common in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Aegean Sea.  Home-made explosives or dynamite are used to blow up every living thing within a certain radius of water.  Blast fishing destroys coral reefs and fills the waters with pollutants.  The blast also contributes to the disorientation of echolocating dolphins, whales and porpoises miles away.


Submitted by SFitz on Aug 31, 2008