Time to Stop the Carnage
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For even one dolphin to die, lingeringly, struggling, in a drift-net not even meant for it, is an obscenity. In 1989, the United Nations agreed to ban large-scale high seas drift-nets. Why then, nine years on, are European fishermen still using them? Samantha Holliday reports.

Picture the immense diversity of marine life that would be contained within 100 square miles of open ocean. Now imagine, in one fell swoop, all of this is destroyed for the sake of harvesting one species. This is the story of drift-nets: an extreme manifestation of the modern, highly competitive fishing industry. Developed out of a desire to secure ever-increasing profit margins, drift-nets have proved to be one of the most destructive fishing practices of our time.

Traditionally, small drift-nets made of cotton were used by coastal communities to catch dense schools of fish, such as herring or sprat. Floats would be attached to the top of the nets, and weights attached to the bottom. They would then be allowed to drift passively in the water and catch any fish that swam into them. Following technological advances in the production of synthetic materials in the 1970s, the scale of drift-net fisheries dramatically changed. This new netting was barely visible once in the water, but strong enough to endure the rigours of the open seas. This not only led to their widespread use, but also resulted in a dramatic increase in the size of the nets, with many stretching as far as 50km. During the Eighties, approximately 50,000km of nets were being cast into the oceans every night. They came to be known as the ‘walls of death’, catching everything in their path and playing havoc with the ecology and natural harmony of the marine world. Hundreds of thousands of dolphins, whales, turtles and birds are estimated to have been killed every year by these nets, as well as an unquantifiable amount of non-target fish species.

Under much pressure from conservationists, the United Nations finally agreed in 1989 to ban drift-nets. Since the ban came into effect in 1992, large-scale high seas drift-nets have almost disappeared from our seas.

You would therefore be forgiven for thinking that the subject is now closed, that drift-nets are no longer a threat to marine life, that they are no longer responsible for the deaths of thousands of marine mammals and birds every year. In some parts of the world, however, drift-netting continues. The troubled waters in which drift-netting continues include the North-East Atlantic and the Mediterranean and many of the countries responsible for this ongoing ecological destruction belong to the European Union.

Following the United Nations ban, the European Union implemented its own legislation limiting the length of drift-nets in European waters to 2.5km. The main nations affected by this legislation were Italy, France, Ireland and the UK. Unfortunately, the lack of monitoring of fisheries practices has meant that in some areas this regulation has been flouted. Furthermore, studies carried out by both France and the UK have shown that, even where the 2.5km limit has been adhered to, the level of bycatch of non-target species has been far higher than anticipated.

The worse case of non-enforcement occurs in the Mediterranean, which now suffers the effects of more large-scale high seas drift-nets than any other ocean in the world. Most of these belong to Italian drift-netters, fishing almost exclusively for swordfish. Almost 700 Italian vessels use drift-nets. It is reported that many of these are illegal and up to 20km in length, the average net length being 12.5km. More than 8,000 whales and dolphins are thought to die in these nets every year.

Attempts to lessen the impact of drift-netting have been marred by the Italian Government’s apparent lack of commitment to enforcing European Law. The International Whaling Commission expressed its concern, in 1994, that the Mediterranean striped dolphin population might not be able to sustain the numbers being killed by nets. In spite of this, the Italian Fisheries Minister called for the length of drift-nets to be officially extended to 9km.

Frustrated by the inability of the EU to control the use of drift-nets in the Mediterranean, a consortium of conservation groups decided to take a new line of action: in 1995, they took the US government to court to ensure that it upheld its own legislation, which places economic sanctions on any country seen not to be abiding by UN Resolutions.

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