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Driftnets create walls of death for sea creatures

By Peter Mallam
I. J Samson Junior High
St. John's, Newfoundland

Stretching across the ocean at over 50 km in length, a driftnet hangs like a giant veil of death in the sea.

Driftnets are suspended vertically in the water with floats attached to the top and weights at the bottom. They can be made of non biodegradable plastic or nylon. They are used in almost every ocean, mainly in the Pacific and Atlantic, as well as in many seas such as the Mediterranean. More than 32,000 km of net is set in the north Pacific alone.

There are three main problems with these "walls of death": ghost fishing, drop out and by-catch.

A diver cuts a whale
free from a driftnet

Ghost fishing occurs when a driftnet breaks loose on its own and is free to sail the ocean. Sometimes, however, a net is cut loose by frustrated fishermen if it becomes tangled while being drawn in. When a net is free-floating like this it is moved by winds and currents all over the ocean. It becomes an invisible wall of death, killing whatever it touches. It will continue to do this until the weight of the creatures it has ensnared finally drags it to the bottom.

It's estimated that 1,000 km of ghost net is left in the ocean for every driftnet fleet. If this continues, by the year 2000 there will be enough ghost net in the ocean to stretch 1/3 of the way around the earth.

By-catch is the term given to the many things that are caught in the nets that are not wanted for marketing. This is a very serious problem. In 1989, one driftnet fleet out after squid in the Mediterranean caught 58 blue sharks, 914 dolphins, 52 fur seals, 35 puffins and 22 marine turtles alone. It is estimated that 3,000 to10,000 dolphins are caught each year along with over 80 other different kinds of species of marine life. Numbers like these are never precise because most driftneting is done in the open ocean where it is impossible to monitor and count the number of fish brought in.

Drop-out occurs while the net is being brought in. The decaying remains of fish and other marine animals that have died on the net fall off and are lost to the ocean. This is a terrible waste because not only does the by-catch fall off, but the fish that the net was put out for falls as well. This makes driftneting a very non-productive way of fishing and a waste of time and money.

It is clear that driftnets are a world-wide problem and many people and groups believe that they should be banned forever. In 1989, the United Nations put a moratorium on large scale, high seas driftnets and the South Pacific forum issued the Tarawa Declaration. This called for an end to all driftnet fishing in the forum area. Also, at this time, the European Union would not allow fishermen to use driftnets that are over 2.5 km long.

But these laws were impossible to enforce and regulate by local law enforcement and the United Nations and were often ignored by fishermen in the open ocean. In one week alone, Greenpeace found 14 illegal driftnets in the Mediterranean, many of these were over 8 km in length.

Greenpeace has campaigned for 15 years against the "walls of death" and has recently scored a victory. On June 8, 1998 in Luxembourg, Greenpeace called for a European Union agreement to ban the use of all driftnets over 2.5 km in length. This agreement will phase out all E.U. driftnet fishing by the year 2001.

With the numbers of animals getting caught in driftnets all over the world and the ecological problems they are causing, many wonder why a worldwide ban on all driftnet fishing has not been agreed on. Many people think that this should be done and are waiting for this day.


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