The European Commission proposed a regulation on 14 May 2014 that would ban the use of all driftnets in European Union waters, as well as their use by member states’ vessels around the world as of 1 January 2015.
Massive driftnets stretching for miles and suspended by floats entangle fish in the mesh. In addition to targeting specific fish, they kill large amounts of other marine animals as bycatch—species not intended for capture—including whales, sea turtles, dolphins, and sharks.
They have been banned within the waters of many countries and on the high seas by several international bodies, including the United Nations. The EU and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or ICCAT, both banned the use of driftnets for catching large open-water species several years ago, but this gear is still being used illegally in the Mediterranean Sea to target bluefin tuna and swordfish.
The European Commission’s proposed ban would close loopholes that have made control and enforcement difficult. By prohibiting the use of all driftnets, including coastal driftnets, the EU would significantly increase the ability of member states to enforce the ban and deter the illegal use that continues, often undetected.
The Commission’s proposed regulation to ban outright the use of driftnets demonstrates a clear determination to end this environmentally damaging practice and to address illegal fishing of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea,’’ said Amanda Nickson, director of global tuna conservation for The Pew Charitable Trusts. “It also highlights the challenge the Commission and EU member states face with effective control and enforcement.”
Despite the ban on the use of driftnets to catch large open-water species, problems continue in EU waters.
From 2005 to 2011, for example, Italian authorities, EU inspectors, and non-governmental organisations documented more than 650 violations of the driftnet ban. In July 2011, the Italian Coast Guard in Sardinia uncovered a widespread illegal trafficking ring, along with evidence that bluefin catch documents were routinely falsified or withheld from authorities.
Such subterfuge allowed tuna caught by driftnets to enter the market illegally. In September of that year, the European Commission began a second infringement procedure against Italy, alleging it had failed to enforce effective controls on the use of illegal driftnets. As a result, Italy faces a fine of 120 million euros (approximately $150 million).
Nickson noted that full implementation of the ICCAT electronic bluefin tuna catch documentation, or eBCD, system, would allow the EU to track catch and trade of these fish within the EU and globally, and vastly improve its ability to detect and deter illegal transactions.
Although the eastern Atlantic Bluefin tuna population is beginning to show signs of recovery from decades of overfishing, ICCAT scientists have acknowledged uncertainty about recent positive findings. Indeed, despite strong evidence of continued illegal activity, the method used for the stock assessment only factors in reported catch, not the total number of fish removed from the sea, which effectively ignores recent illegal catch.
A separate scientific study published in 2013 by the journal PLOS ONE demonstrated the potential extent of the problem. The study estimated that between 2008 and 2011, actual catch of bluefin tuna in the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean exceeded the total allowable quota by 57 percent, which could endanger the sustainability of the stock.
The driftnet proposal, coupled with full implementation of the electronic bluefin tuna catch documentation system, is an opportunity for European institutions to demonstrate their willingness to crack down on the illegal fishing of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean,” Nickson said.
The ban would come into force as of 1 January 2015, pending approval of the proposal by the European Parliament and the Council of EU fisheries ministers.