Original publication: February 2015
Author: Antonello SALA National Research Council, Institute of Marine Sciences (CNR-ISMAR, Italy)
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Alternative Solutions for Driftnet Fisheries

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Driftnets have been used since antiquity, and small-scale driftnets (SSDs) have been used throughout the EU for many years without raising particular concern to fish small-medium pelagic species like anchovy, European pilchard, and mackerel. However, in the late 1970s and 1980s large-scale driftnets with much larger mesh sizes and greater length were introduced, resulting in significant incidental mortality of protected species including cetaceans, sharks and rays, and giving rise to environmental concern (Oceana, 2005; 2007; 2008).

The uncontrolled use of large-scale driftnets and their devastating effects on many vulnerable species have led to attempts to apply stricter legislation on driftnets (UNGA, 1991; IWG, 1990). In response to the expansion of large-scale driftnet fisheries and associated environmental concerns, in 1992 Council Regulation (EC) No 345/92 reduced the total size of driftnets that could be used in EU waters (except the Baltic Sea, the Belts and the Sound) and by EU vessels outside EU waters to 2.5 km.

However, the legislation did not halt the expansion of large-scale driftnet fisheries. A number of additional regulations have since been introduced to address the problem. The aims of the additional measures were to:

  • provide a clear and unambiguous definition of a driftnet;
  • protect certain groups of pelagic species including tuna, swordfish, billfish, several sharks and all cephalopods (listed in Annex VIII of EU Reg. No 894/97 as amended by Regulation (EC) No 1239/98) and prohibit landings of such species incidentally caught in driftnets;
  • protect harbour porpoises in the Baltic Sea.
Current driftnet fisheries in EU waters

According to the two latest studies published by EC-DGMARE (2014a; 2014b) and to the author’s personal contacts with Member States, 45 active SSD fisheries operate across the main EU regions: Baltic Sea; Black Sea; Mediterranean; North Sea including the Skagerrak and Kattegat (hereinafter North Sea);and North-East Atlantic.

An SSD fishery originating from Poland was identified in the Baltic Sea despite the ban on driftnets. It operates inshore and primarily targets salmonids using a semi-driftnet. Three active driftnet fisheries – two Bulgarian and one Romanian – were identified in the Black Sea; one is a marine fishery targeting Atlantic bonito (Sarda sarda), the other two operate in rivers and estuaries and target a range of species including Pontic shad (Alosa immaculata). Most of their vessels are under 12 m long.

The Mediterranean has eight active driftnet fisheries originating from Italy. According to the DRIFTMED study (EC-DGMARE, 2014b) they target a variety of species; primary targets include anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus), European pilchard (Sardina pilchardus), amberjack (Seriola dumerili), Atlantic mackerel (Scomber scombrus), chub mackerel (Scomber colias), bogue (Boops boops), horse mackerel (Trachurus trachurus), bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix) and saddled sea bream (Oblada melanura). Six of these fisheries operate on the western coast of Italy and two on the southern coast (Catania and Selinunte, Sicily). According to the author’s contacts with the Spanish Ministry, another driftnet fishery targeting sardine is found in the EU Mediterranean, but is not included in the EC-DGMARE (2014a; 2014b). Some vessels in the area of Malaga (Spain) use a net called “Sardinal”, which is very similar to the “Xeito” driftnet originating from the north of Spain.

Seven driftnet fisheries operate in the North Sea, six of which originate from the United Kingdom (UK). They primarily target cod (Gadus morhua), Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), sea trout (Salmo trutta), Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus), common sole (Solea solea) and sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax). All UK driftnet fisheries but one are found in ICES division IVc; the sixth is the north-eastern salmon fishery (region IVb). The seventh fishery originates from Sweden and targets mackerel in the Skagerrak and Kattegatt. There are 25 active driftnet fisheries in the North-East Atlantic originating from France, the UK, Spain and Portugal. In this region they target species such as sea bass, Atlantic salmon, herring, common sole, European pilchard, mackerel, shad (Alosa spp), lamprey (Petromyzontidae) and sea bream (Sparidae). The majority of driftnet vessels are under 12 m in length and operate within 12 nm of the shore.


The aim of the present study is to analyse and review the literature to find and explore alternative solutions to a complete ban on driftnet fisheries, taking into account the scientific evidence of the damage that driftnets may cause to the environment in the different EU regions. It also looks at alternatives (EU-wide, national or regional) both in terms of shifting of fishing gear and technical solutions and of possible conversion to other activities.

The analysis draws upon the existing literature on: i) the main characteristics of driftnets in EU fisheries (e.g. mesh size, twine thickness, hanging ratio, etc.); ii) use of fishing gear (e.g. maximum distance from the coast, soaking time, fishing season, etc.); iii) number of vessels involved in this type of fisheries; iv) number of people involved in the use of driftnets both in the fisheries sector and in processing industries. After assessing the possible impacts of SSDs on the ecosystem, including both protected and non-protected species, the study provides recommendations for policymakers to base their decisions on the circumstances in which driftnet use is not acceptable. It also examines the effectiveness of a possible ban making it illegal to keep other fishing gear (e.g. longlines) on board to circumvent controls.

Evaluation methodology

The analysis is based on the latest available information from a range of sources including academic publications, studies, research projects, websites and databases of European Institutions and Members States bodies, but especially on two studies:

  • Study in support of the review of the EU regime on the small-scale driftnet fisheries” (EC-DGMARE, 2014a);
  • Identification and characterization of the small-scale driftnet fisheries in the Mediterranean (DRIFTMED)” (EC-DGMARE, 2014b).

These studies provide detailed information on driftnet gears, fishing capacity and fleet activity, composition of catches, and impacts on vulnerable species and the environment in general. In addition, data regarding three further SSD fisheries, not examined by the two studies, were included in the current report based on information obtained through the author’s contacts with the Swedish and Spanish national fisheries bodies.
This analysis presents the most recent data as clear tables and figures, supplies critical information, and sets forth recommendations for consideration by the Members of the European Parliament. Its aim is to be comprehensive and comprehensible by non-specialists and to provide only data relevant to decision-making, excluding non-essential information.

Study overview

The study is divided into eight chapters. The first provides a general description of driftnet fisheries, with particular emphasis on the capture method and main technical features of SSDs. Chapter 2 describes the currently active SSD fisheries in EU according to the latest two projects funded by DGMARE (EC-DGMARE, 2014a; 2014b). The technical features of driftnets are reported in Chapter 3.

Chapter 4 assesses the impact of SSDs by evaluating which fisheries are most likely to interact with protected and Annex VIII species (EU Reg. No 1239/98). Chapter 5 discusses the EU regime on SSD fisheries and examines the four policy options proposed by DG-MARE to revise the current EU driftnet regime.

The purpose of Chapter 6 is to identify and describe alternative fishing methods to catch the same species or group of species now being exploited by SSDs, assess and discuss their environmental impact, and establish whether they could replace SSDs. Chapter 7 provides the fundamentals of the methods for measuring the selectivity of driftnets and other static gears. Chapter 8 formulates recommendations regarding alternative fishing gears and improvements in SSD selectivity, to mitigate the negative impact of driftnet fisheries on the environment, for consideration by policymakers.

Link to the full study: http://bit.ly/540-345

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