Global Ban on Driftnets

How Knowledge and Activism Can Trump Commercial Interests

A voyage wrought with adventure and activism ends up in unlikely places and gathers enough evidence of the horrors of driftnets to curb public opinion, resulting in a ban on indiscriminate netting practices.

Turtle in a Trap - Defending Our Oceans (Mediterranean Sea: 2007)

A turtle is caught in a fishnet trap in the Mediterranean Sea.

© Greenpeace / Marco Care

Bye Bye to Bycatch

Many fisheries catch fish other than the ones that they target; these unwanted fish are referred to as bycatch. Often, these fish are thrown dead or dying back into the sea. To combat this wasteful problem, Greenpeace has called attention to destructive fishing practices that contribute to bycatch, namely bottom trawls and driftnets.

Bottom trawling is a destructive way of “strip-mining” the ocean floor by dragging a net across the ocean’s bottom. This results in bycatch of commercially unattractive animals like starfish and sponges. A single pass of a trawl removes up to 20 percent of the seafloor flora and fauna.

Driftnets are vertical nets that hang attached to flotation devices dragged by the boat. The net has thin mesh that travels through the ocean like a wall of death, ensnaring any and all undersea organisms in the way.

Greenpeace Infiltrates a Soviet Whaling Station During the Cold War

Don White, then president of Greenpeace, planned an expedition to document the Bering Sea kill and create an internationally-televised documentary on the destructiveness of driftnets. After securing primary funding from Ted Turner, a wealthy media mogul and ally, we chartered the vessel Rainbow Warrior and jointly crewed it for the expedition.

Interestingly, securing Turner’s funding to get the Rainbow Warrior to the Bering Sea meant White also had to create a campaign to invade a Soviet whaling station in Siberia. Turner found driftnets to be a dull issue and insisted on a package deal. This was during the height of the Cold War, the same year that Reagan made his Star Wars missile defense speech.

Some Greenpeace activists were arrested by Russian authorities at the Soviet Whaling station and later handed over to the U.S. Luckily, the Rainbow Warrior outran Russian ships and escaped to accomplish its main objective of capturing driftnetting on tape.

Ted Turner’s Driftnet Documentary Gathers Footage

In the summer of 1983, the campaign encountered Japanese driftnet vessel Yahiko Maru in U.S. waters of the Bering sea. It documented them killing porpoise and seabirds. The crew then deployed motorized rafts and gave chase to prevent the setting of the Yahiko Maru’s nets.

For the first time in history, human intervention stopped a driftnet from being deployed. As an inherently destructive technology, this is the only way to prevent a massive bycatch: don’t let those nets go into the water in the first place.

WTBS, under contract with and oversight from Greenpeace, subsequently produced the internationally-aired special “From No Man’s Land a Porpoise Cries,” the first documentary of driftnet destruction and a wake-up call to people and fisheries of the world. By 1984, Japan was denied entry into U.S. waters of the Bering Sea.

Governing Bodies Take Notice

We helped expose this reckless destruction, fueling public outrage. As a result a U.N. moratorium on high seas large-scale driftnets was passed in 1989, followed by a worldwide ban in 1992. This victory was the culmination of 15 years of Greenpeace campaigning.

The end result was that fishing would now be more efficient, less likely to needlessly destroy ocean wildlife. Preserving ocean ecosystems meant better long term fishing, ensuring jobs and food for much of the world’s population that otherwise may not have access to them.

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