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Driftnets are a type of fishing gear used to catch various pelagic species. During the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, this type of gear became popular due to its effectiveness and easy use. Because this gear is passive, it does not require any type of specialisation. However, driftnets bycatch thousands and thousands of cetaceans and other endangered species.

These nets can be up to 35 meters high and 20 km. long. In Italy, there are two types of driftnets: the spadara, used to catch swordfish, and the ferrettara, used to catch bullet tuna and bonito. In France, driftnets are called thonailles and their lengths range between 2.5 and 10.5 kms.

Fifteen years ago, the United Nations General Assembly established an international moratorium prohibiting the use of these nets and the European Union banned them seven years ago. According to the information Oceana has, in Spain drift nets have been substituted by other gear, but hundreds of French, Italian and Moroccan vessels continue using these nets known as “curtains of death” while they receive subsidies from European institutions to shift to other gear.

Drift nets are made of nylon and they have a mesh size between 18 and 24 centimetres (although they can exceed 40 cm in some cases), a height of 35 meters and a length of up to 20 kms (the nets are comprised of panels that are attached to each other to reach the desired length). Because these are illegal nets, though, the dimensions are often modified and adapted to meet the needs of the illegal activities.

In Italy, there are two types of drift nets: the spadara (with mesh size between 340 and 460 mm, targeting swordfish) and the ferrettara (with mesh size between 80 and 180 mm) targeting bullet tuna and bonito. In France, drift nets are known as thonailles and they have a mesh size between 180 and 240 mm, with lengths ranging between 2.5 and 10.5 kms.

Due to their length (up to 20 kms), drift nets are known as “curtains of death” because thousands of marine mammals, turtles and other endangered species die trapped in them.

  • Excessive impact on fauna: the illegal use of these nets by countries like France, Italy or Morocco involves the killing of thousands of cetaceans, turtles and sharks because this gear has a high by-catch rate.
  • Illegality and fraud: the EU has provided hundreds of thousands of Euros in subsidies for the dismantling and/or conversion of these fleets. However, in many cases, ship owners have not abandoned the use of this gear and instead have invested the subsidies to improve their vessels in order to continue fishing illegally. This constitutes unfair competition for the fishermen who have abandoned the use of drift nets and seriously damages fisheries that are already overexploited.

Seven years after being banned and after four consecutive years of Oceana reporting on these illegal activities, Italy and France alone account for a fleet of more than 151 vessels that continue using drift nets.

Learn More: The Case of Italy

Italy is one of the most notorious cases. The Italian driftnet fleet has undergone various conversion plans that began over 10 years ago and were financed with public funds. However, Oceana located more than 137 vessels with illegal drift nets on board and has documented the fleet using these nets.

 Italian legislation allows the use of nets called ferrettara, drift nets with the following characteristics:


  • Length: < > up to 2.5 km
  • Mesh size: less than 180 mm
  • Target species: small pelagic species.

Although they are legal in Italy, the conditions regulating the use of these nets constitutes a legal loophole for the use of illegal drift nets and the consequent catching of prohibited species. Oceana rejects the use of these nets because they are, in effect, driftnets and have the same impact. As such, Oceana asks the Italian government to repeal the decree authorising these nets and to regulate the use of ferrettara so it corresponds to the target species.

According to Oceana’s information, ferrettara are used as a cover for the possession of nets on board to continue secretly using illegal driftnets with length and mesh size that exceed those established by regulation.

Results of the 2007 campaign

  • 137 illegal netters documented.
  • Observers detected clear signs of the use of nets by other vessels.

Learn More: The Case of France

French drift nets known as thonailles were used to catch pelagic species, including immature bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Lion. This illegal gear was used with connivance and support from the French government, taking advantage of a legal loophole in EU legislation.  However, Oceana reported these vessels since the ban on drift nets came into effect in 2002, because there is absolutely no difference between these and the thonailles.

The characteristics of thonailles are as follows: 

  • Length: < > between 2,500 and 10,500 meters.
  • Mesh size: 180-240 mm, in some cases reaching up to 360 mm.
  • Target species: swordfish and bluefin tuna

Thanks to the approval of new Community regulations that included a definition of driftnets, the legal loophole no longer exists and the use of thonailles is now outside EU legislation.

Results of the 2007 campaign

According to our observers, there were not much fishing activity going on with these nets. However, we  detected a large quantity of nets on the docks that seemed ready to be used. As such, we asked the French government to be coherent and forceful when applying legislation and to remove and eliminate all of the nets that constitute illegal drift nets.

Following are the results of the 2007 campaign:

  • 69 registered vessels with nets on board or gill net vessels with fishing rights for bluefin tuna in 2006.
  • From the Ranger, 22 netters were documented fishing in the Gulf of Lion. Six of these were fishing in the Pelagos Sanctuary.

Learn More: The Case of Morocco

During the decade of the 90s, there was a significant increase in the number of vessels in the Moroccan fleet dedicated to fishing with drift nets. Among these, roughly 300 longliners temporarily or permanently used this fishing gear. This transformation was influenced by an increase in the demand for swordfish from the EU and the progressive withdrawal of this gear in Europe. In fact, there is an almost direct relationship between the decline in the use of this gear in Europe and the increase of the drift netting fleet in Morocco. During the 14th meeting of ICCAT in 2004, Morocco presented a plan to eliminate drift nets in a period of four years with support from the EU in the shape of 1.5M Euro. However, Oceana proved that this plan was not successfully developed, but Morocco was granted an extension until 2011.

This Mediterranean “transfer” of nets, along with the operative benefits of these compared to surface longlining gear, makes it difficult for Morocco to withdraw the nets and convert the fleet.


There is a paradox concerning drift nets in Morocco because, although Moroccan swordfish is mostly caught with drift nets, the distribution channels are European, and Spain is the main importer.

If we make an optimistic estimate that 38% of the swordfish catch in 2004 was caught using drift nets and taking into account that the production for that year was 3,253 tons, this would mean that the EU introduced in its market 1,150 tons of swordfish caught with gear that is banned in Community waters.

Learn More: Legislation

In 1991, the United Nations General Assembly put into effect an international moratorium prohibiting the use of drift nets. In 1992, the EEC prohibited the use of drift nets longer than 2.5 kms. On 1 January 2002, the EU approved a new regulation prohibiting the use of driftnets to catch species including bluefin tuna, swordfish or albacore. Since then, new regulations have complemented this prohibition, extending its application to Atlantic salmon in the Baltic Sea and introducing a complete definition of drift nets and their characteristics.

Currently, the use of gill nets, including driftnets, longer than 2.5 kms or to catch large pelagic species is prohibited by European legislation for any EU-flagged vessel or vessels in EU waters.

The Italian government allowed the use of ferrettara with a mesh size up to 150 mm to catch small pelagic species. In January 2002, the use of these nets and their characteristics were regulated, restricting their use to the first three miles from the coast and prohibiting a mesh size of more than 100 mm. However, the Italian government gave a new twist to their policies. Currently, the legal distance from the coast to use ferrettara is 10 miles and a mesh size of 18 cm is permitted. These measures allow large pelagic species to be caught, including swordfish and bluefin tuna, which is prohibited by the EU. To learn more about the use of drift nets in Italy, refer to the case of Italy.

In the case of France, the French government issued a Special Fishing Permit (PPS) to use driftnets in 2003 when the EU prohibition was already in effect. Two decrees were later added to this permit in 2004 and 2005, regulating the use of thonailles and enforcing the incorporation of a floating anchor on one end of the gear and acoustic devices to dissuade certain species on the upper edge of the net. In 2007, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries protected the fleet of thonaillers when it included these vessels in a new special fishing permit for bluefin tuna. Despite the fact that the EU prohibited this gear, the prohibition was not considered effective until 28 June 2007, when the EU Council of Ministers approved a new regulation that included a complete definition of drift nets.  According to this new regulation, nets that included a floating anchor on one end were also considered drift nets. To read more about the use of drift nets in France, refer to the case of France.

International measures against the use of drift nets applicable in the Mediterranean basin





United Nations General Assembly

World moratorium prohibiting the use of large-scale drift nets on the high seas



Adoption of a set of restrictive measures regarding commercial relations with countries that use driftnets longer than 2.5 km in international waters



Resolution against the use of large-scale driftnets on the high seas in support of the resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly


European Economic Community

Prohibition of the use of driftnets longer than 2.5 km for EEC Member States



Resolution against the use of driftnets longer than 2.5 km



Prohibition of the use of driftnets longer than 2.5 km or to catch certain species.  Entered into force for all EU Member State vessels on 1 January 2002



Transposition of ICCAT* recommendation to a GFCM recommendation by which the use driftnets of any length to capture large pelagic species is prohibited



Resolution by which the use of driftnets of any length is prohibited in the areas of the Agreement


*IWC: International Whaling Commission

*GFCM: General Fisheries Council for the Mediterranean

*ICCAT: International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas

*ACCOBAMS: Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area