Shifting Gears

by John Hocevar

June 25, 2009

After a long campaign, the United Nations banned “wall of death” driftnets in 1992.  Stretching up to 50 miles, these floating nets were notoriously indiscriminate, snaring enormous amounts of marine life.  The Japanese squid fishery alone was estimated to take over 41 million non-target fish, sharks, sea birds, marine mammals and sea turtles each year.  Following the UN’s ban on high seas drift nets, the European Union reinforced the move by banning their use in EU waters, and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas further extended the ban to the whole Mediterranean.

Unfortunately, several countries are not respecting the ban.  Italy is probably the worst offender, with a large fleet of driftnetters operating in the Sicilian Channel, Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas.  The Italian Government has taken some small steps to limit driftnetting, but in general they have chosen to look the other way.  We just got some good news, though.  After protests by Greenpeace and WWF, Italy just suspended their previous decree that Italian driftnetters would be allowed to operate up to 40 miles from the coast, which would have been in violation of international law.


Hard fought victories like the driftnet ban must be defended, so the Rainbow Warrior is patrolling the central Mediterranean to gather evidence on illegal activity, to be submitted to relevant authorities.  

The fishing season for bluefin tuna fishing has ended, and now the illegal driftnet season is in full swing.  Driftnetters target swordfish during their June/July spawning season, but the nets catch anything in their path – including bluefin. They operate at night, during the new moon, to make it difficult for fish to see the nets.  This is necessary because swordfish have highly developed eyes, aided by an exceptionally high density of blood vessels.  Swordfish are able to see far better in low light conditions than humans, to assist them in hunting for prey.

We are now in our target area, with what looks like a driftnet boat on our radar.  We’re going in for a closer look, and will continue to patrol throughout the night.  Our eyes may not work as well as swordfish, but hey, that’s why we’ve got binoculars.

For the oceans,

John Hocevar and the crew aboard the Rainbow Warrior


John Hocevar

By John Hocevar

An accomplished campaigner, explorer, and marine biologist, John has helped win several major victories for marine conservation since becoming the director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign in 2004.

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