Illegal use of driftnets still a big problem in the Mediterranean

June 6, 2012

At a recent bilateral meeting in Brussels, high-ranking officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the European Commission (EC) discussed the problem of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, including the ongoing use of illegal driftnets in the Mediterranean.

In September 2011, the US and the European Union (EU) signed a joint agreement to combat IUU fishing. The meeting between NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco and European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Maria Damanaki represents a significant opportunity to publicly demonstrate a shared commitment to finally put an end to illegal driftnetting for Atlantic bluefin tuna, a severely depleted species.

Driftnets — massive fishing nets stretching for miles suspended by floats — have been banned within the national waters of many countries and on the high seas by several international bodies, including the United Nations. However, driftnets in the Mediterranean are still being used to illegally target bluefin tuna and swordfish. These nets also kill large amounts of other ocean wildlife, including whales, dolphins, sharks and sea turtles.

“Illegal driftnet fishing for Atlantic bluefin tuna continues by Italian fishing vessels despite numerous bans on this gear by the United Nations, the EU and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT),” said Lee Crockett, director of Atlantic bluefin tuna conservation efforts for the Pew Environment Group. “This method is the most well-known and well-documented type of illegal fishing by European vessels.”

From 2005-11, Italian authorities, EU inspectors and nongovernmental organisations documented more than 650 infringements of the driftnet ban.

In July 2011, a widespread illegal trafficking ring was uncovered along with evidence that bluefin catch documents were regularly being falsified or withheld, allowing tuna caught by driftnets to enter the market illegally. In September 2011, the EC began a second infringement procedure against Italy because of the lack of effective controls on illegal driftnet activity, for which Italy faces a fine of EUR 120 million. However, current regulations, enforcement and sanctions have failed to stem the use of these illegal nets.

“As a critical step to stop illegal fishing activity, the EU and US should submit the list of vessels using illegal driftnets to ICCAT to be included in the Commission’s blacklist ahead of its annual meeting in November 2012 to assist with port enforcement efforts,” said Crockett. “Additionally, the EU should ban the use of driftnets in the coastal waters of member States.”

“Finally, because of this poorly understood source of bluefin mortality, the US and EU should jointly call on ICCAT member governments to delay an increase in bluefin tuna fishing quotas until IUU fishing has been controlled and the species has recovered to healthy levels,” Crockett stated.

The continued illegal use of driftnets in the Mediterranean affects not only that region. Because these bluefin tuna migrate across the ocean, it also affects bluefin and those who fish for them in the western Atlantic.

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