European Cetacean Bycatch banner loading

"Man is but a strand in the complex web of life"

Internal links buttons



Statement from the European Commission’s
Directorate-General for Fisheries


At a meeting on 8 June 1998, the Council of Ministers took the difficult, but necessary, decision to ban the use of drift gill nets for the capture of tuna fish in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean from 1 January 2002. This decision was taken on account of a number of biological, economic and social factors. The measure bans a fishing technique, drift nets, not tuna fisheries which can be continued using safer, more selective and economically attractive techniques. The ban may, in the short term, have a negative economic and social impact on the communities concerned, but no ban would have had even more serious consequences. To help these communities make the transition to safer techniques, the European Union, in co-operation with Member States, will provide measures to ensure that this impact is kept to a minimum.

What are drift nets?

Driftnets are nets that are held on or just below the surface of the water thanks to floats. Their height varies according to the fishery concerned but, in the case of large nets, is generally comprised between 20 to 30 metres. They are weighted at the bottom so that the tension created between the floats and the weights holds the net vertically in the sea. Nets can drift on their own or, more frequently, with the vessel to which one end is tied. They are generally set at night, at least for large species, and tend to target pelagic species - swimming close to the surface of the water - such as sardines, herring, albacore, swordfish and salmon.

What are the main problems linked to the use of this fishing technique?

Driftnets stand accused of not being sufficiently selective and of trapping unacceptable numbers of cetaceans, marine mammals, birds and reptiles.
Initially, drift nets were used to catch small species and did not give cause for concern. In the Mediterranean, for example, this technique has long been used to fish a variety of tuna-like species with nets of limited lengths. Problems started when drift nets were modified by enlarging their meshes in order to catch larger species and by increasing their overall sizes to maximise catches. The use of these large nets multiplied first in the Pacific, before being adopted in Atlantic tuna fisheries. Although the nature and volume of non-targeted species, or by-catches (species caught by accident) vary according to the design of the net, the fishery involved and the zones in which the net is used, the larger net meshes and greater sizes of the nets have proved fatal for a large number of species.
In the early 1990s, responding to public concern, the United Nations (UN) passed a resolution asking for a moratorium on the use of large drift nets. The EU Council of Ministers, with the backing of the European Parliament, decided to impose a maximum limit of 2.5km on drift nets used by EU vessels (this measure, like the UN moratorium, did not include the Baltic Sea).
Problems continued, however, because there were still too many instances where the rules on maximum length were not respected. The effective monitoring of the implementation of this rule at sea presents many practical problems. It requires extensive resources and manpower and a level of expenditure difficult to sustain over a long period of time for both the EU and individual Member States. So, despite the regulation, the amount of fishing with drift nets continued to expand. Concerned by the effects of this growing pressure on fish resources and the related increase in the volume of by-catch, the Commission proposed, in 1994, to ban drift nets - ban which could have become effective a few years later - but Member States felt unable to adopt these proposal.
After experiencing some difficulty adjusting to the 2.5km drift nets, the Atlantic tuna vessels managed to increase efficiency and, after a while, this technique became economically very attractive. In June 1998, however, a majority of Member States decided that, all things considered, the time had come to ban the use of drift nets in tuna fisheries.

Where are drift nets currently used?

Large drift nets are currently used by several countries. In the European Union, this technique is used in tuna fisheries by about 670 Italian vessels in the Mediterranean to catch swordfish and by around 70 French and some 30 Irish and UK vessels to fish albacore in the north-Atlantic from June to October/November. There are also some fisheries in the Mediterranean where this technique is used by Spanish and Italian vessels to target small tunas. Some fisheries of small species such as sardines and herring are also carried out using drift nets but without causing any problems.

Driftnets are also used in salmon fisheries: in the Baltic by Finland, Sweden and Denmark (around 350 vessels) and in the Irish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish inshore waters.

So why ban their use for tuna fisheries?

The status quo was no longer tenable in tuna fisheries as the problems already experienced would inevitably have got worse.