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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Driftnet Ban Violations

Air Date: Week of

Matt Binder reports on violations of the UN's new ban on driftnet fishing. The US Coast Guard has busted at least five illegal driftnetters in the northern Pacific. Watchdog groups say some countries may be tacitly supporting illegal fleets, but Washington says there have been few documented violations, and that compliance with the new law appears to be surprisingly good.


CURWOOD: Driftnet fishing was outlawed by the United Nations last January. The giant webs literally scoop up everything in the ocean for miles, and the UN banned them after it became clear that driftnets were destroying fish stocks. This was especially true in the Pacific, where driftnetting brought some seemingly unlimited fish populations to the brink of collapse. Every nation that belongs to the UN, and some that don't, have pledged to honor the ban, but it's a promise that apparently is not being kept. When the Pacific open-ocean fishing season began this summer, it became clear that a number of driftnetters are still operating. Matt Binder has our report.

(Sound of loudspeaker hailing ship: "On the 60-206, on the 206, stop your vessel, stop your vessel . . ." Fade under)

BINDER: On May 25th, crewmembers on the US Coast Goard Cutter Sherman videotaped this encounter with an illegal Chinese driftnetter in the rich salmon-fishing grounds about halfway between Alaska and Japan. It was the fifth boat in just ten days of patrolling that the Coast Guard caught in the act of laying twenty to fifty mile long free-floating gill nets. Following procedures laid out by the UN, officers on the Sherman radioed the State Department in Washington, which then contacted the government of the People's Republic of China and got permission to board the illegal ship.

(Sound of boarding: "Pull the ladder up! Got a ship loading on the starboard side!" Fade under)

BINDER: None of the Chinese crewmen spoke English, so the Coast Guard set up a satellite telephone link to an interpreter in the Chinese Embassy in Washington, and with the Embassy's permission, ordered the driftnetter back to China.

(Sound of Chinese conversation, fade under)

BINDER: Back at his home port in Alameda, California, Lieutenant Matthew Wannamaker, the head of the boarding party, says the Chinese fishermen didn't even try to hide what they were doing.

WANNAMAKER: I'm not quite sure these individual fishermen knew it's illegal. I'm not quite sure how much the Chinese government has disseminated that fact. They were very confused, they weren't quite sure why the American Coast Guard was boarding them.

BINDER: Two of the other four boats the Coast Guard caught were also flying the flag of the People's Republic of China. Another was registered in Honduras, and one boat escaped before the Coast Guard could get a good look. The Sherman is the only ship patrolling for illegal driftnetters in the entire North Pacific. And although its patrols are aided by spotter planes, Coast Guard officials say there may be many more boats out there breaking the ban. Lieutenant Commander Jack Rutz heads the Coast Guard patrol operation.

RUTZ: Well, to date, it doesn't look like we've had very good compliance at all. we've sighted so far five vessels out there conducting illegal fishing operations, and the weather as of recently has been fairly poor and we haven't been able to locate any more. But the possibility does exist that there are more vessels out there.

BINDER: Chinese embassy officials in Washington declined to be interviewed about their part in the illegal driftnetting, but did fax Living on Earth a statement saying that one of the boats caught by the Coast Guard is a Taiwanese-registered vessel that was illegally flying the Chinese flag. David Colson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, says the People's Republic of China is trying to comply with the ban.

COLSON: We're getting very good cooperation from the People's Republic of China. There's no evidence at all that the government is condoning or authorizing illegal high-seas driftnetting activity. But as all governments have, there are people that live in them that don't always obey the rules.

BINDER: Colson says he suspects that Taiwanese business interests are bankrolling most, if not all the illegal driftnetting, hiding their actions by flying the flags of other nations. But Colson says there's no evidence yet that the Government of Taiwan is involved. Before the ban, there were hundreds of driftnetters operating around the world, most of them flying the flag of one of four nations - China, Taiwan, Japan or South Korea. The UN ban made each country responsible for dismantling its own driftnet fleet. But the UN didn't grant itself any special monitoring powers, so it's been left mainly to journalists and environmentalists to keep the governments honest. Dave Phillips is the executive director of the Earth Island Institute, a San Francisco-based environmental group with one of the largest non-governmental driftnet monitoring programs in the world. He says very few driftnet ships have been converted or accounted for.

PHILLIPS: Where are they? They're not perhaps registered under the flag of that country, but where are they operating? Are they rogue vessels, have they found a country that can act as a flag of convenience? Are they in hiding, waiting until the issue cools down? We don't know this, and that's an area where we have to focus some energy.

BINDER: US law allows for severe economic sanctions on any country breaking the UN ban. But the sponsor of the law, Representative Gerry Studds of Massachusetts, says despite some cheating, the ban is working better than he expected. And Studds agrees with the State Department that there's no need for sanctions at this time.

STUDDS: It may come as a surprise to some people, because I haven't spent my entire career saying nice things about the Department of State, but in this case I have to concur. I think that every piece of evidence we have is that the violators have been very minimal in number, and they have been operating without the sanction or approval of their own governments, so I would say this is a sea change, if you will, in the North Pacific, and represents a dramatic victory.

BINDER: Still, the Coast Guard will continue patrolling, and environmental groups will continue monitoring for driftnet activity in the North Pacific. There's almost no monitoring being done in other oceans. And even if all driftnetting were stopped today, the legacy of the practice, thousands of miles of "ghost nets" floating free in the ocean, would still be a problem for years to come. And fisheries experts say that the last decade of driftnetting caused such population crashes in so many species that the oceans may never recover. For Living on Earth, I'm Matt Binder in San Francisco.



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