">Oceana’s research catamaran, Ranger, filming and photographing illegal driftnet fishing off southern Italy, was chased in the high seas and narrowly escaped a ramming attempt by angry Sicilian commercial fishermen whose colleagues have been arrested and their boats and nets confiscated in the past two weeks as the international ocean conservation group works to stop the forbidden practice that kills dolphins by the hundreds in the Mediterranean.
Four days later, the swordfish fishermen tracked down Ranger’s crew at a small marina. The fishermen issued death threats, demanding the crew turn over the film and photos.
“We are astounded to see the lengths to which these illegal commercial fishermen will go to stop the world from witnessing their foul practice,” said Andrew Sharpless, Oceana’s chief executive officer. “The European Union has paid boat owners up to $50,000 a boat to convert to legal fishing gear, but many simply pocket the money and keep fishing with driftnets. The result is the deaths of dolphins, sea turtles and other marine wildlife in these curtains of death.”
Since mid-June, Oceana’s Ranger has been patrolling the Tyrrhenian Sea __ the western Mediterranean area between the southern tip of the Italian boot and the islands of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia __ photographing and videotaping illegal driftnet boats in ports and at sea. Ranger’s crew has taken down boat names and registration numbers and compared them to the list of boat owners who obtained European Union and Italian government subsidies of up to US$50,000 per boat to convert to legal nets, a program that has disbursed more than 200 million euros. Many have pocketed the money and kept on using driftnets.
“Some boats hid their illegal nets under plywood covers, away from prying eyes, but we still were able to see the winches and light buoys; others displayed the driftnets without concern,” said marine biologist Xavier Pastor, Oceana’s vice president for Europe and leader of the Ranger patrol mission. “We have reported these boats to the Italian authorities.”
Police have arrested crews and confiscated three boats and nets, including the Stella del Sud at the Ischia Island harbor.
On July 29, Ranger visited harbors in the islands of Sant Antioco and Calasetta, in western Sardinia, then went out to sea on patrol. At dawn on Sunday, July 31, Ranger spotted the Alba Chiara, in international waters, in the process of hauling in the last hundred meters of her long driftnet.
“We carefully approached the boat and placed Ranger in a position that did not interfere with their operation or safety but allowed our filming crew an excellent vantage point to record this action,” said Pastor. “As soon as the fishermen realized what we were doing, they went mad, screaming and shouting at us. They cut loose the rest of their net and came at us.”
Ranger’s captain, Carlos Perez, immediately engaged the Ranger’s engines and made to leave the area. The Alba Chiara opened its throttle and gave chase at full speed.
“They approached the Ranger at a distance of 20 to 30 meters of our aft, and we had to engage in evasive maneuvers to avoid being rammed,” said Pastor. “We made a frantic radio call for help and told the Italian coast guard of the Alba Chiara’s attempt to ram us.”
As soon as the SOS call was aired, the Alba Chiara ceased the chase and turned back to pick up its nets and buoys. Ranger turned around and followed. Once the fishing gear was loaded, the Alba Chiara headed for port. The coast guard told Ranger they would be waiting at two possible ports to intercept the Alba Chiara.
The second incident happened on Thursday, Aug. 4. Eight fishermen, including one who identified himself at the Alba Chiara’s skipper, located Ranger at the 160-berth Marina Siffredo in San Pietro Island, the westernmost of the islands surrounding Sardinia.
The fishermen approached the four Ranger crew members who were walking on a pier near Ranger, shouted insults and issued death threats, including making gestures to signal throat-cutting. The fishermen wanted the Ranger crew to turn over the film and photos. The marina owners summoned local police, which took down IDs and escorted the fishermen off the property, but made no arrests.
Ranger is continuing its patrols. The EU directive prohibiting driftnets (EU Regulation 1239/98) and Italian legislation prohibits the use by any European Union vessel of driftnets of any size. In 1998, when the legislation was adopted, Italy grudgingly went along only after a threatened trade boycott by the United States. Since then, Oceana and other ocean conservation groups have been attempting to make Italy enforce the law.
Driftnets, also called gillnets, are mesh panels of net made from plastic strands designed to catch fish by their gills. They do such a good job that in the process they also capture many other kinds of fish and ocean wildlife, which are usually discarded as unwanted bycatch. Globally, gillnets catch and kill more than 30 different species of marine mammals, including bottlenose dolphins and harbor porpoises. These fisheries deploy hundreds of yards of net and leave them in the water for long periods of time, from several hours to several days. Sea turtles entangled underwater in a driftnet can drown in under an hour of forced submergence.
Ranger, whose port of registry is Annapolis, Md., recently completed an 11,000-mile transoceanic voyage, Oceana’s first ocean expedition, leaving California in January and arriving at its European base of Majorca in June. Ranger and its crew visited a dozen marine biodiversity hotspots in the Pacific and Atlantic, capturing 400 hours of unique underwater photography and 7,000 high-resolution still photographs. Nearly 100 volunteers and Oceana staff from a half-dozen countries contributed to the voyage, including biologists, underwater camera operators, photographers and support divers.