|Time to Stop the Carnage|
|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
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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