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Wall of Death – Gillnet Fishing

Perhaps the oldest form of commercial fishing is gillnet or fixed net fishing.  Set at the surface, on the bottom, or at any depth in between, gillnets are designed to trap fish as they attempt to swim through the net openings.  The size of the netting is dependent upon the species of fish targeted so it appears the fish can swim through. Once in the net, they are stuck, their bodies too large to pass through and unable to back out because their gills are entangled.

Ranging up to several miles in length, gillnets may be anchored or they may “drift” along with the boats that set them.  According to a website, New Jersey Fishing, owned and operated by the Garden State Seafood Association, gill net fishing “is a selective, environmentally friendly method of providing highest quality fish to consumers.”

The association says, “The size of the mesh in a gillnet, along with the fisherman’s intimate knowledge of the behavior of the fish he is seeking, guarantees that bycatch of other species will be minimized”.  The seafood association also purports that gillnet fishermen regularly monitor their nets so that any untargeted species are released unharmed.

Whether in or near shore, or open ocean, gillnet fishing can easily wipe out an entire school of mature fish in one set with only the smallest and most immature of the school able to escape the nets.  Without the protection of the larger school the immature fish that remain are more vulnerable to predators.

In addition to the decimation of fish populations, gillnets are responsible for the death and injury of millions of ‘bycatch’ species such as endangered sea turtles, sharks, whales, diving birds and non-targeted fish.  The Cetacean Bycatch Resource Center is a group of scientists, environmentalists, and fishermen joined in an effort to protect the world’s cetaceans.  According to the center, “Bycatch in gillnets may be the single greatest threat to porpoise and dolphin populations worldwide (Jefferson and Curry 1994, Kraus et al. 1997). The Vaquita, a tiny porpoise in Mexico’s Gulf of California, is currently on the brink of extinction due to being caught in the gillnet fisheries”.

The Sea Turtle Restoration Project states that, “gill nets are a significant cause of sea turtle mortality…among the prime reasons the Pacific Leatherback population crashed”.  So far in 2007, over 1,000 sea turtles have died in nets in the Bay of Bengal alone.

EarthTrust, a well-respected environmental group whose comprehensive study of gillnet fishing resulted in a United Nations moratorium on high seas gillnet fishing in 1993, coined the term “wall of death” when referring to gillnets.  Their study clearly proved that this is the most destructive form of commercial fishing ever to exist.  While the UN ban applies only to high seas gillnet fishing, individual nations are left to deal with coastal water bans and regulation.  Even though some nations have instituted gillnet bans, pirate gillnet fishing continues as the remaining countries continue to permit coastal gillnet fishing.

Ghost nets which are gillnets, fixed nets, and trawl nets that become detached from their anchors, are deliberately cut loose to avoid detection by law enforcement, or cut loose when irretrievably tangled drift throughout the world’s oceans, many of them thousands of feet long.  These ghost nets lodge on coral reefs not only destroying the coral but continuing to catch doomed marine life.

Here in the US Virgin Islands, a ban on gillnet fishing was signed by former Governor Charles Turnbull in 2006.  To take effect on January, 1, 2007, implementation of the ban was extended until March, 2007, giving commercial fishermen time to petition the new governor, John DeJongh, and ask that the ban be lifted.

According to a survey done by the Virgin Islands’ Fish and Wildlife Division the fishing industry in the Virgin Islands generates $8-10 million in annual revenue. However, tourism, much of it dependent upon the draw of our coastal waters generates some 70% of the Virgin Islands total annual Gross Territorial Product; approximately $1,943,620,000 in 2005.  There are many working as this article is written to prevent the lifting of the gillnet ban not only to protect our dwindling fish supplies but also to protect the vital tourism industry.

The result of the past 12 years of gillnet fishing in the US Virgin Islands is apparent as it is in other locations.  Reefs once plentiful with grouper, parrotfish, snapper, and other colorful fish, the sightings of which delighted visiting divers, swimmers, snorkelers, and waders, are now bare.  Will those visitors continue to come to the Virgin Islands…or the Bahamas…or the Florida Keys…or the islands of the Lesser Antilles?  Fishermen whose bounties were once plentiful are finding fewer and fewer fish.

Gillnet fishing in the Virgin Islands did not become a major means until 1995 after Hurricane Marilyn when so many of the traditional fish traps were lost to the storm.  Finding gillnet fishing more profitable, as fishermen around the world have found, the more environmentally-safe trap fishing was abandoned by many.  While the Virgin Islands ban signed into law in 2006 provides some funding for replacement of gillnets, the funding is not sufficient to re-outfit the gillnet fishers with another less destructive method of catching fish.

Bans on gillnet fishing have been instituted throughout the world, although enforcement and replacement of fishermen’s equipment remains a huge stumbling block while gillnets remain in use.  Pirate gillnet fishers continue to strip our oceans of fish and kill millions of “untargeted” species, an innocuous name for dolphins, whales, sea turtles, and sea birds.  Local governments continue to struggle with the seemingly easy decisions of banning gillnet fishing and/or funding enforcement and re-outfitting of their fishermen while thinking little of the impact the decimation of marine life will have upon tourism and indigenous peoples.

When do government officials and we, their constituents, begin thinking of our futures in the long-term rather than bowing to special interests in the short-term…when do we realize that taking an entire school of fish has eliminated any possibility of perpetuating the species for that school…when do we stop redirecting critical funding for enforcement and education to golf courses and race tracks and the bailouts of mismanaged private industries?

Sustainability in Commercial Fishing Series

Becky Bauer takes an in depth look at today’s Commercial Fishing…

After many years of debate, the dogged determination of environmental groups, and scientific studies, the cause of many large-scale disasters—killing floods and landslides, starvation from lack of topsoil in which to grow food, air and water degradation—is now recognized as a threat to global security. This threat is the clear cutting of forests throughout the world.

I am certain you are wondering what clear cutting has to do with commercial fishing. A recent study conducted by Dr. Les Watling of the Darling Marine Center at the University of Maine states that commercial bottom trawling and dredging destroys 150 times more sea bottom than clear cutting destroys forests per year. 150 x 16m = 2400m acres of sea bottom per year; 2,400,000,000 acres, a number so large as to be almost incomprehensible.

Take a walk with us and begin to understand the repercussions of our actions…  AWARENESS and Understanding are the keys to sustainability.

After 30 years as a wild and domestic animal rescuer, rehabber, and educator in the states, Becky Dayhuff became a scuba instructor and journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean.  She is a contributing photographer to NOAA and received a “Passionate People” award from Sirenian International based on her marine life writings, particularly her series on manatees.

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