Driftnet Fishing: An Introduction

International and regional cooperative efforts have lessened much of the negative consequences associated with large scale driftnet fishing on the high seas.

The term driftnet fishing describes a scaled up fishing technique that uses nets to coral a school of fish. It has been an especially efficient form of fishing through the ages for many species of pelagic fish, small and large, that travel the oceans in large schools.

The most recent global concerns expressed about driftnet fishing started in the 1970s. The size of the driftnet fleet increased around the world and the large scale tuna and squid fishers began dropping the longest of the driftnets, up to 25 miles (40km) long. The primary criticisms were that driftnet fishing techniques were not compatible with sustainable fisheries management practices and they also caused too much harm to unintended targets such as seabirds and marine mammals.

As the debates continued through the 1980s, a majority of states with fishery management interests reached a consensus on the downside of driftnet fishing. In the international arena, a U.N. Resolution passed the General Assembly in 1989, called for a moratorium on the practice. Member states followed up on the U.N. Resolution in a variety of ways. The fisheries arm of the U.N., The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) developed a comprehensive Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and instituted an educational program for member states about issues such as selection of proper fishing gear. The Secretary General reports yearly on the status of driftnet fishing.

In 2002, the Secretary General was able to report,

It is becoming increasingly evident that the problem of large-scale pelagic drift-net fishing is abating owing to the continued resolve by the international community to ensure implementation of the global moratorium on the use of large-scale pelagic drift-net fishing on the high seas.

During this same time frame, many states began negotiating regional agreements to help them better manage their fishery resources. One such agreement, The Convention for the Conservation of Anadromous Stocks in the North Pacific Ocean (1992), prohibited driftnet fishing of the North Pacific ocean. At the time, the United States, Canada, Russia and Japan were concerned about the sustainability of their famous salmon and steelhead trout fisheries, because these fish lived a dual life in the local rivers of member states as well as the open seas of the North Pacific, where driftnet fishing was harming the stocks.

By most accounts, the Convention has successfully helped the member states manage their stocks. Over the course of the fourteen years the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission has been collecting catch statistics, they’ve shown that state catch records have remained relatively stable over time. Additionally, the research on salmon and steelhead trout life cycles promoted by the organization, has improved members abilities to manage fish stocks.

The enforcement mechanism of the Convention has also contributed to its success. Member states, now including the Republic of Korea, coordinate aerial observations of activity over the Convention’s jurisdiction. They also coordinate the activities of the respective enforcement agencies, such as the Coast Guard. China also cooperates with member states, and the U.S. Coast Guard invites Chinese observers to participate in all actions taken against ships flying the Chinese flag.

Additionally, Sea Shepherd reported Chinese cooperation in the 2016 Operation Driftnet, a campaign the organization promoted to halt a driftnet fishing enterprise by Chinese nationals in the Southern Indian Ocean.

The overall decrease in driftnet fishing on the high seas has not solved the problem of sustainability managing the fish stocks. However, at the very least, the cooperative efforts aimed at halting driftnet fishing have helped embed the concept of sustainable fishery management in member states domestic fishery policies around the world.

Closer to home, the Turtle Island Restoration Network has recently launched a campaign to halt the California driftnet industry. Their 2018 report stated:

Over the past decade, 885 dolphins, whales, and other marine mammals were caught in the large-mesh drift gillnets targeting swordfish and shark.


A bill is currently in the California Legislature to halt the practice.