Drift-Net Fishing on the Way Out?
THE UN General Assembly in New York calls it “highly indiscriminate and wasteful.” The London-based European office of IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development) describes it as a “major threat to sealife.” Sixteen Pacific nations denounce it as “unjustified plunder.” Clearly, drift-net fishing is under global attack. Why?
Drift nets—vertically suspended nets drifting along in the sea like curtains—have been slipped into coastal waters for thousands of years. In the late 1970’s, however, pelagic, or open-sea, drift-net fishing saw such a spectacular increase that today an armada of more than a thousand drift-net vessels from Japan, Taiwan, and the Republic of Korea comb the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans for squid, albacore, billfish, and salmon. Since each ship, by some estimates, operates giant nets hanging as much as 36 feet [11 m] deep and spanning 30 miles [50 km], the combined length of the fleet’s nets amounts to some 30,000 miles [50,000 km]—more than the distance around the earth!
“Curtains of Death”
These nearly invisible nylon gill nets are so efficient that according to the bulletin IIED Perspectives, “on current trends the nets may destroy albacore fishing in the South Pacific within two years.” Drift netting, says marine biologist Sam LaBudde, is as indiscriminate as “clear-cutting a forest to harvest a single species of tree or felling an oak just to harvest acorns.” Indeed, while at it, this largest fishing fleet in the world also sweeps up tons of nontargeted species, such as bluefin and skipjack tuna, marlin, swordfish, and migrating steelhead trout.
According to James M. Coe, a researcher with the National Marine Fisheries Service in the United States, there is evidence that the Asian fleet is illegally catching large numbers of salmon that will never reach their native North American streams to spawn.
To make matters worse, drift nets also entangle, mutilate, and drown thousands of otters, seals, dolphins, porpoises, whales, sea turtles, and seabirds. No wonder a growing number of researchers are referring to drift netting as “marine strip-mining” and to drift nets as “curtains of death”!
The epithets seem appropriate. A recent report from the U.S. secretary of commerce said that during just three fishing cruises, three vessels accidentally caught ‘one striped dolphin, 8 Dall porpoises, 18 northern fur seals, 19 Pacific white-sided dolphins, and 65 northern right whale porpoises.’
Just last year a report submitted to the United Nations said that the Japanese drift-net fishery, in the process of harvesting 106 million squid, killed 39 million fish that the fishermen did not want. In addition, their unwanted toll included 700,000 sharks, 270,000 seabirds, 26,000 marine animals, and 406 sea turtles, which are endangered.
Marine biologists are convinced that if drift netting continues unchecked, it “will inevitably exhaust a natural resource once considered inexhaustible.” In fact, much havoc may already have been caused. In 1988 a fishing captain told biologist LaBudde: “We don’t kill nearly as many dolphins as we used to.” Notes LaBudde: “That’s probably because there aren’t that many left to kill.”
Global Agreements Surfacing
Recently, however, calls for action against drift netting have been heard from London to Washington, D.C., and from Alaska to New Zealand, and some measures have been taken to pressure fishermen to cut back their fleets and haul in some of their nets for good. To name a few: A group of South Pacific States adopted the so-called Wellington (New Zealand) Convention, permitting them to eliminate drift netting within their 200-mile [320 km] fishing zones and prohibiting their own fishermen from using drift nets anywhere in the South Pacific.
In December 1989 a UN resolution recommended a moratorium on large-scale drift-net fishing on the high seas by June 30, 1992. The World Watch Institute said that without curtailment of drift-net fishing, “humanity [will] have little hope to protect its seas for future generations” and added: “We must work out comprehensive global agreements.” South Pacific States, grouped in the Forum Fisheries Agency, therefore proposed the creation of an international commission to regulate fishing and urged fishermen to adopt responsible fishing practices.
But is international pressure having some effect? Yes, dramatically so!
On November 26, 1991, Japan agreed “to comply with a United Nations moratorium on the use of huge fishing nets in the northern Pacific Ocean that scientists say are responsible for widespread destruction of marine life.” The decision “defused a controversy that had threatened to do further damage to Japan’s reputation on environmental matters.” Japan agreed to end half of its drift-net operations by June 1992 and the remaining half by the end of that year.
One day later an editorial in The New York Times said: “‘A sweet victory for the global environment’ was how one elated marine biologist described Japan’s announcement on Tuesday that it would shut down its drift-net fishing industry by the end of next year .”
A report in Time magazine, December 9, 1991, said that Taiwan and the Republic of Korea indicated that they would also discontinue their use of drift nets.
“As for this sea so great and wide, there there are moving things without number, living creatures, small as well as great.”—Psalm 104:25.
[Pictures on page 15]
Drift-net vessel in action
Photo: Steve Ignell, ABL
Sea otter skeleton entangled in lost drift net
Photo: T. Merrell
[Pictures on page 16]
Seabirds caught and killed by drift nets
Photo: A. Degànge
Trapped Dall porpoise
Photo: N. Stone