At midnight Oceana’s research catamaran left the harbour of Portoferraio in Elba and headed to the fishing grounds of the Western Mediterranean, where a fleet of dozens of Italian fishing boats continue to use driftnets, in defiance of the European Union ban.
Driftnets were banned from 2002 because of their total lack of selectivity and the large amount of incidental catches, provoking the death of tens of thousands of dolphins, whales, sharks and sea turtles. Many of these species are threatened and are consequently protected by European and other international laws.
The Italian driftnet fleet received more than 2 million Euros in subsidies to stop using these nets, or to replace them with more selective gear. However Oceana investigations during the 2005 Ranger expedition revealed that many of the vessel owners took the money and continued to use these driftnets.
These so-called curtains of death can be up to 20 kilometres long and 30 metres high. They are intended to catch swordfish, but not only do they cause the overexploitation of this species, they also ensnare huge numbers of other marine animals.
It is for this reason that in 1989 the United Nations passed a resolution banning the use of driftnets worldwide. It was only a number of years later that the European Union passed legislation to ban their use by EU vessels from 2002.
Italy, despite the European ban and the subsidies its fishermen received, is one of the countries that does not enforce this legislation adequately. The other country is France.
“The continued illegal use of driftnets by two of the core countries of the EU is making a mockery of European law and of its taxpayers”, declared Xavier Pastor, Director of Oceana in Europe. “The impact of this fishing gear on cetaceans and fish stocks has been clearly proven by many scientists. There is no question that the law must be enforced”.
Oceana has expressed its disappointment at the recent decision of the new Italian Government in this area. The Minister of Fisheries, Paolo de Castro, has given in to pressure from the fishing industry and has passed a decree which in practice will only serve to mask even further the activities of illegal driftneters. By extending the definition of what is legal artisanal gear, the line between legal and illegal fishing activity has become blurred and it will now be more confusing for the Italian coastguard to enforce the ban.
To push for the end of driftnet use in Europe, the second Oceana campaign has begun. Once again the Ranger will monitor the seas and harbours of the Western Mediterranean to highlight and document the lack of enforcement. It will record information on vessels, take photographic and video evidence, register positions, length of nets and any other relevant data.
As in last year’s expedition, this information will be passed onto the Government concerned, and also to the European Commission, Parliament and the European Fraud Office (OLAF).
The scale of the problem becomes apparent when considering that, despite the tolerant attitude of the Italian government to these illegal activities, the coastguard managed to seize more than 800 km of driftnets in 2005 alone. This amount of net would stretch the length of the Italian peninsula. Unfortunately, most of the nets are not destroyed but end up back in the hands of the illegal driftnetters.