An Expert Warns of the Dangers of Driftnets, Lethal Curtains That Reap Fish—and Controversy—by the Ton

updated 05/15/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/15/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It's called driftnetting, a high-seas fishing technique that some see as the marine equivalent of strip-mining on land. Far-ranging commercial fleets from three Asian nations—Japan, South Korea and Taiwan-sweep the North Pacific in search of seafood, primarily squid, using lightweight drift nets that are miles long. But in the process, American critics charge, their nets may also be taking a huge toll in marine mammals, seabirds and other wildlife, most of which is summarily discarded. How bad is the damage? No one is certain. Most U.S. experts describe this "unintended catch" as high. The Asians insist that it is small.

Jim Coe, program manager of marine entanglement research for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, has been assessing the impact of driftnet fishing since 1985. A zoology graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara with a master's in marine resource management from the University of Washington, Coe, 42, has specialized in such issues as ocean dumping and inadvertent kills of marine life. In sketching the scope of the driftnet dispute for correspondent Joni H. Blackman, he suggests that all parties involved remain woefully unprepared to deal with the consequences of unrestricted driftnet fishing. And as the international competition to exploit the riches of the sea intensifies, the time for solutions may be growing short.

Who uses the driftnet technique in ocean fishing?

The Japanese are the fathers of modern driftnet fishing. They and the South Koreans and Taiwanese use driftnets to fish for squid, tuna and marlin. There are no driftnet fisheries operated in the North Pacific by the U.S.

How do driftnets catch fish?

Driftnetters use nets of monofilament nylon—like the stuff you put on your fishing reel—that are very light. Each afternoon, an hour or two before dark, they drop walls of webbing in the water from their boats that are 30 feet deep and up to 30 miles long. Each boat sets eight to 11 driftnets a night. There are floats on top and weights on the bottom, so the nets hang like curtains drifting free. At night the hanging nets are invisible to fish. Fish swim along and hit the net; the opening is large enough to allow the head through, but not the entire body. The fish become entangled, usually because their gills get caught and they can't back out. Driftnets are thick enough to hold fish—or drown a dolphin.

How long has the practice of driftnetting existed?

Gillnet fishing, which is done in coastal waters, is an old business in the Orient. Driftnetting is a term created to encompass high-seas gillnet fisheries. There are, somewhere in the North Pacific, between 1,200 and 1,500 driftnet fishing vessels from the three nations I mentioned. Only in the past decade have they discovered that there are resources of value in the middle of the North Pacific where little fishing had been done before.

What economics or environmental problem has this created?

Drifting gillnets catch things other than their intended targets. Our primary concerns fall into two categories: first, the high-seas interception of salmon and steelhead trout of U.S. and Canadian origin. Under international law these fish belong to the countries that own the streams in which they originate.

And the other category?

That is the incidental take, or by-catch, of some other fish species, seabirds and marine mammals—like whales, dolphins and northern fur seals—that may have commercial or aesthetic value to the U.S. Air-breathing dolphins, for example, swim into the driftnets; they turn, they twist, they wrap themselves in the line, they fight like mad, but eventually they drown.

Don't other kinds of deep-sea fishing also cause "incidental take"?

Yes, but not nearly at the level of nonselectivity that driftnets do. There are other ways to catch squid, salmon and tuna much more selectively—long-line and jigging, for example. In the former, a boat unreels a line up to 30 miles long with thousands of baited hooks; jigging involves pieces of colored plastic equipped with prongs which "jig" up and down to attract squid. At present, however, large-scale industrial driftnetting is the method of choice because it's efficient and cheap.

What is the scope of the damage to wildlife?

It's hard to say; good photographs, for example, are practically nonexistent. If pushed to the wall, I can give some ranges. The take of seabirds is thought to range from 75,000 to 875,000 annually, of blue sharks, in the realm of 20,000 to 200,000 metric tons. The number for marine mammals is thought to be in the tens of thousands. These are not firm figures, but they are suspected levels of incidental takes, which concern us.

Why don't we have firmer figures?

To monitor by-catch rates, we would need an observer program with scientists and technicians aboard a sampling of commercial fishing vessels. So far, through negotiated agreements we made with the governments and commercial firms operating the boats, we've only succeeded in placing two observers. It is a complicated problem that is multinational, multidisciplinary, multicultural, multi-jurisdictional, multispecies, multi-almost everything.

Are there at present no legal restraints on driftnet fishing?

Under existing international law, these fisheries are legal. So there are questions about our right to place observers on these boats, given that they're fishing legally on the high seas, where we have no more jurisdiction than anyone else.

Aren't the Asian countries concerned about widespread ecological damage?

The take of marine mammals is not the kind of issue for Asians that it seems to be for Americans. In the other countries, they accept it as a price of doing business. In the U.S., we have a substantial environmental community that is very concerned about the unnecessary killing of wildlife—period.

What have been the direct consequences of the massive use of driftnets to date?

There have been a variety of claims—the demise offish runs in Alaskan river systems, for example, which costs the U.S. possibly tens of millions of dollars annually. The depletion of the northern fur seal, dolphin and seabird populations is of concern to conservationists, but it is hard to say what the long-term effect will be. Until we know a great deal more about what goes on out there, we can't verify or deny the claims.

What action has the U.S. government taken?

Under the Driftnet Impact Monitoring, Assessment and Control Act passed by Congress in 1987, the Department of Commerce, together with the Secretary of State, is required to negotiate observer or enforcement programs with nations operating such fisheries in the North Pacific. If satisfactory programs are not successfully negotiated by June 29 of this year, the Secretary of Commerce has the option to certify to the President that these nations are in violation of this act. The President then has the option to begin trade sanctions against these nations, particularly against the exports of their fisheries' products to the U.S.

How does driftnetting affect average Americans?

It depends on their sensitivities. If they're among those who have an appreciation for marine life beyond how good it tastes at dinner, they're probably going to be concerned. Or if the impact of driftnetting on, say, the U.S. salmon fisheries is as bad as some claim, then we'll eventually see higher prices at the supermarket. There is a mishmash of legal, political, commercial and cultural interests competing here, and everyone must cooperate to ensure that no permanent damage is done to the productivity of the North Pacific.

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