Dirty driftnet fishing continues in European waters

Posted: 17 October 2002

Author: Anouk Ride

Despite being banned this year, driftnet fishing is still being used in European waters - and still killing large numbers of dolphins, sea birds, turtles, and other marine wildlife.

With a UN moratorium in place for the last ten years and a European Union (EU) ban introduced this year, it was hoped that driftnet fishing in Europe - a hot campaign issue in the early 1990s - was finally over. But in fact, driftnet fishing continues to wreak havoc in European waters.

Known as a "dirty" technology due to the large number of other fish, sharks, turtles, whales, dolphins, and sea birds killed or injured in its long mesh walls - which can reach dimensions of 17 meters deep and 56 kilometres long - driftnet fishing has long been used in many parts of the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Baltic seas.

According to the International Whaling Commission, during its peak use in the 1990s, driftnet fishing had a total annual bycatch of some 10,000 whales and dolphins in the Mediterranean alone. In recognition of this problem, an array of legal instruments was created to limit the use of large driftnets.

In 1992, the UN General Assembly declared a moratorium on all large-scale driftnet fishing, calling it a "wasteful practice". To comply with this, that year the EU prohibited driftnet fishing in the Mediterranean using nets more than 2.5 kilometres in length, as did the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean in 1997. In 1998 the EU banned driftnets altogether in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, effective from 1 January this year.

But enforcement of these rules has been lax. In 2000, representatives complained to the EU that French vessels in the Atlantic and Italian vessels in the Mediterranean were continuing to use driftnets up to 10 kilometres in length - not only killing other marine species but also impeding the progress of other vessels. French driftnet fleets are also operating in the whale sanctuary off the coast of northwest Italy and southeast France.

This year's complete ban on driftnets has been met with resistance from some fishermen. Italian fishermen, still with around 90 boats equipped with driftnets, rejected European aid to convert their fleet to other technologies and pushed the Italian government to obtain a special exemption from the ban. French driftnet fishermen also tried - unsuccessfully - to obtain an exemption.

Even if the ban is enforced for European fleets in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, non-EU Mediterranean countries are still using the practise. Morocco has the largest driftnet fleet in the Mediterranean, with around 400 vessels. The scarce monitoring of what happens to European driftnet equipment now that the ban is in place is a big concern: some driftnet fleets in North African countries, Turkey, Albania, and Malta are expanding as those in Europe are winding down operations.

And the EU ban does not apply to salmon fishing in the Baltic Sea, where current regulations allow for driftnets up to 21 kilometres long to be used by one fishing vessel. These nets capture not only salmon, but also harbour porpoises, seals, and sea birds. According to a recent joint statement of non-governmental organizations, including WWF, regulations governing the use of driftnets in the Baltic Sea lag far behind those in the rest of the world.

As the EU debates the review of its Common Fisheries Policy this year, there is clearly still much to be done to free its seas from the nets that campaigners have dubbed "the walls of death".

Anouk Ride is a freelance journalist who reports on environmental and human rights issues.Related link: WWF's Endangered Seas Programme