The DriftNetwork: Vital Followup to the Driftnet Victory

It only takes one season for a driftnet boat to lay waste to a huge area. This is the program to prevent it.

The “DriftNetwork” is an EarthTrust program which exists to monitor the illegal use of deep-sea driftnets in the seas of the world.

Upon its creation, it was endorsed by the director of UNEP as the only practical mechanism for policing the issue in the wake of the ET driftnets victory at the United Nations.

These driftnets –  giant gillnets, tens of miles long –  are set at the surface of the water and fish overnight, catching everything that cannot swim through small holes in the invisible mesh. The plunder is removed and mostly discarded in the daytime, in time to re-deply the net for the next night.

This practice is widely known by the name EarthTrust gave it in 1988, “Strip-mining the Seas”, because it quickly erases all large sea life in a large area.  Most of this sea life is discarded dead. As a fishery technique, it is no better than dynamite fishing, which is why nearly every nation bans it in their own waters.

However it is cheap and profitable for the first few seasons in any pristine area, before all is killed. Therefore there is a temptation to sneak driftnet vessels into areas which are not closely monitored. The seas are vast, and it is quite possible for vessels to deploy driftnets in such and lay waste to wildlife and fisheries.

Sometimes the driftnets are hidden covered over on the deck, while the vessel masquerades as some other type of fishing vessel. In order to tell the difference, it’s often necessary to seek out the vessels in ports of call and physically see whether they are carrying driftnets.

A vital part of this intelligence-gathering comes from private boat owners, sports fishermen, and ships of other fishing industries which may see or hear rumors of active driftnetting. The involvement of NGO’s around the world cooperating can magnify this effectiveness.

Once such sightings are reporting to EarthTrust’s program, local fisheries enforcement can be notified, or ET can coordinate investigations to verify it and shut it down.

The DriftNetwork has been very successful at doing this in the past. Currently, the DriftNetwork is unfunded, so cannot conduct field investigations. ET management highly recommends it for funding consideration by supporters. It is excellent “bang for the buck” in terms of saving marine wildlife.

What are Driftnets?

Driftnets are 8-15 meter deep nets made of fine nylon mesh used to fish for tuna, salmon, squid (and unofficially, anything else that can’t swim through the holes). The nets are nearly transparent and are set below the surface to drift overnight. Between 2-90 kms in length, driftnets function as hanging walls of death” for nearly everything they encounter.

Fleets from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan formerly deployed some 50,000 kms of gillnet on a daily basis until the United Nations moratorium which began in 1993 (and which EarthTrust was instrumental in achieving at the United Nations). These fleets operated in the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans. Larger mesh nets were also used extensively by these fleets to target billfish and albacore on a worldwide basis.

Despite the United Nations moratorium, pirate driftnetters continue to wreak havoc on deep ocean ecosystems. The ongoing purpose of the DriftNetwork is to expose and stop pirate driftnetting wherever it occurs.

It is expected to make a big resurgence in coming years, as more-expensive fuel alters the economics of far-seas fisheries and enforcement. We expect to see it pick up again in a big way.

Because of its well documented history of destruction of marine fisheries and wildlife populations, driftnetting is now widely considered to be the most destructive fishing technology ever devised by humankind. Combined mortalities to dolphins and other small cetaceans impacted by these nets were measured in the early 1990’s to be in excess of several hundred thousand each year.  (The UNFAO estimated a million dolphins per year).

In addition, millions of seabirds, tens of thousands of seals, thousands of sea turtles and great whales, and huge quantities of non-target fish species were killed in these nets each year. Pirate driftnetters–though less numerous than their formerly “legal” counterparts, continue these destructive practices.

Driftnet fishing is clearly unsustainable and causes indiscriminate mortalities to wildlife and non-target species. Stopping pirate driftnetting–as commercial driftnetting has been stopped–would preserve marine resources and wildlife populations and offer much needed protection to the majority of fishermen who use viable economic and environmentally sustainable methods of fishing. It would also end the destruction caused by the loss of thousands of miles of net each year. Lost nets, also called “ghost” nets, continue to ‘fish’ as they float at sea until sinking under the weight of their victims or washing ashore where they entangle seals and seabirds.

EarthTrust and Driftnets

ET pretty much defined the global conservation campaign to ban global driftnets, at all crucial stages.

The two crucial organizations which raised the issue to the world with active campaigns were Greenpeace International and EarthTrust. The same guy created and directed both of these organizations’ campaigns, which would not have existed otherwise.

“EarthTrust’s driftnet campaign victory is probably the largest-biomass  marine conservation accomplishment by an NGO in history” – Dr. Noel Brown, United Nations Environmental Program

DJ White used his position as creator and  “czar” of the Greenpeace International Dolphin Campaign to push for GP doing something it had always resisted – a campaign based on ecosystem damage instead of damage to a single fund-raise-able species.  This was wildly unpopular within Greenpeace and was met with budget cutting, forcing White to find additional funding and logistical support. It took the organization two years to force him out and pull the teeth of the campaign, by which time the first driftnet expedition had been completed. Picking up the campaign with ET, DJ created a campaign for the record books, which was run to a touchdown by the ET team.

ET’s involvement in successfully curtailing the excesses of driftnetting goes back to 1983. The document Earthtrust and Driftnets: A Capsule History sums up Earthtrust’s initial activities coordinating the international issue as it was defined, which climaxed in a United Nations moratorium on driftnet use on the high seas (i.e. those ocean waters outside the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zones of individual nations) starting in 1993. Pirate driftnetting, however, continues. Even at its current level it may be the largest killer of sperm whales and many other kinds of animals in the world. Earthtrust is seeking funding to expand the DriftNetwork program through 2015 and beyond.

CLICK HERE to see a capsule history of ET and the Driftnet issue

CLICK HERE to read the letter of endorsement from Dr. Noel Brown of UNEP for the ET DriftNetwork

CLICK HERE for ET Press Release 2000 on Coast Guard Driftnet Interception