Driftnets are a type of fishing gear used to catch various pelagic species. During the 1980s and the early 1990s, this type of net became popular because it is effective and easy to use. Because this gear is passive, it does not require any type of specialisation. However, driftnets were highly damaging to the marine environment because they resulted in the bycatch of thousands and thousands of cetaceans and other endangered species. These nets can be up to 20 kilometres long and 35 metres high.
In 1992, the United Nations General Assembly established an international moratorium prohibiting the use of these nets, and the European Union banned them in 2002. According to the information Oceana acquired in its expeditions, driftnets in Spain were substituted by other gears, but hundreds of French and Italian vessels continued to use these nets for years while at the same time they received subsidies from European institutions to shift to other gear. Italy has been the last country in Europe still using this illegal gear, which has been often camouflaged under the legal name of “ferrettara” and used to catch bullet tuna and bonito.
In fact, as recently as 2011, the European Commission threatened to take Italy to the European Court of Justice for a second time for failing to comply with the ban. Other Mediterranean countries such as Morocco and Turkey also harboured fleets that using this gear, but have since phased them out.
Since 2005, Oceana has undertaken research at sea and in ports identifying and denouncing the use of illegal driftnets in the Mediterranean. This research revealed that a large number of vessels, despite having been largely subsidised to convert to more sustainable fishing gear, have continued to use driftnets over the years and have only occasionally been sanctioned with low, non-deterrent fines. Loopholes in the regulation have allowed many vessels to keep using driftnets, by using smaller mesh sizes and targeting albacore, also a forbidden species. Oceana has unveiled abuse of these loopholes and has alerted the European Commission and the Spanish government about illegal catches of Italian albacore entering Spanish markets – an unfair burden on fishermen who choose to fish legally and sustainably.