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Fishing fleets are defying international ban, with deadly nets trapping dolphins, whales, and other protected marine species.
Last month, Carmelo Isgrò received a phone call from the Italian coastguard. A 24-foot sperm whale had been found churning in the waters north of Sicily, desperately trying to escape a vast illegal trawl. "They asked me to help them release it because I have a lot of experience with this type of network," says Isgrò, a marine biologist and director of the Museum of the Sea in the Sicilian city of Milazzo. "So I got a really big knife and left immediately," he added.
Isgrò was part of a team of divers that tried for 48 hours to free the restless female whale, while the mile-long trap gradually sank into her thick skin. "It was a very difficult operation because the whale was very powerful, and if it hits your tail they can kill you," says Isgrò. The team was able to remove parts of the net, but the whale, whose tail was still tangled, dove deep into the ocean and lost track.
Authorities say the use of these illegal driftnets, called "walls of death", has increased due to their deadly impact on marine life. The figures show that only the Italian coast guard has seized 100 km (62 miles) of driftnets so far in 2020, compared to 60 km in all of 2017, and experts say those figures are likely to be a huge. underestimation.
With a length of up to 50 km and 50 m deep, driftnets, usually made of fine mesh suspended from buoys along fish migration routes, were banned in international waters by the UN in 1992 for any length. greater than 2.5 km, due to high bycatch rates for species of dolphins, whales, sharks and sea turtles. Since 2002, its use has been banned in EU waters, regardless of size, when it is used to catch highly migratory species such as tuna and swordfish.
"The impact of these driftnets is absolutely disastrous," says Vanya Vulperhorst, campaign director for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing at Oceana Europe, a non-profit conservation organization that has investigated illegal fishing with net. drift in the Mediterranean. "They are indiscriminate in what they catch, and the result is that endangered and protected species are being killed in large numbers."
Research published last month by the University of Padua found that a quarter of the cetaceans, such as the trapped Mediterranean sperm whale, which is endangered, that stranded off the coast of Italy in recent years died due to the activity. human, illegal driftnets being a main cause.
Fishery bycatch, part of which is due to driftnets, accounted for the deaths of more than 300,000 small whales, dolphins and porpoises in 2008, according to WWF, and that number has likely doubled since then. Between 11 and 26 million tonnes of fish, with an estimated value of up to $ 23.5 billion (£ 17.9 billion), are caught by illegal, undeclared and unregulated means each year, according to a 2009 study.
Cheap, cost-effective and easy-to-deploy driftnets remain popular as a commercial fishing method, especially for open ocean species such as swordfish, as they allow them to be caught quickly in large numbers.
Activists argue that limited and complicated legislation with a number of loopholes has allowed illegal driftnet fishing to flourish. The practice is widely seen in the Mediterranean and has spread across the Atlantic and into the Indian Ocean and into the Pacific.
"It's a messy set of laws, regulations and moratoriums," says Valeska Diemel, international director of FishAct, a German-based nonprofit. Laws differ between national and international waters, he adds, and practices that are legal in the Atlantic are illegal in the Baltic Sea, where the use and maintenance of drifting gillnets has been totally prohibited since 2008. “This is a problem when it comes to enforcement, because there are areas where it's very clear what the laws are, but there are areas where I think the agencies aren't even sure, ”he says.
Francesco Mirabito, a Sicily-based environmental activist, says that fishermen are also circumventing sanctions by carrying smaller legal nets known asferrettara on board and then join them once at sea.
"In EU regulations, the definition of networks is not precise enough," he says. “The fishermen on the docks are really calm, doing everything in daylight because they know they won't be caught. Later, at sea, they know that it is impossible for the authorities to control them all. Even if their nets are confiscated, it is not a big deal: they are made in China for a tenth of the price it used to cost.
A spokesperson for the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean says that it "actively supports all efforts to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing", including periodic requests for information from countries to ensure legal compliance.
But environmentalists fear that governments have been reluctant to impose sanctions on powerful fishing industries, pointing to a failed effort by the European Commission to ban the use of any kind of driftnet to fish in EU waters. Greenpeace and the Tethys Research Institute, a Milan-based nonprofit for cetacean research and conservation, wrote a letter last month to Italy's agriculture minister Teresa Bellanova, requesting a total ban on the nets. drift and powerful penalties for violators of the law.
“This destruction is happening before our eyes,” says Raúl García, a fisheries officer for WWF Spain, who has been investigating driftnets since 2002. “It has been for years. We have to act before it is too late. "