Russia has introduced a law banning large-scale driftnets in their waters. These nets, up to 32 kilometres long, are used by Japanese and Russian vessels to target various species of salmon in the Russian Far East.
Unfortunately, these nets capture large numbers of seabirds and marine mammals as bycatch. In BirdLife’s recent global gillnet review, this region was highlighted as the area with the highest seabird bycatch in gillnets, with an estimated 140,000 birds killed each year.
The vast majority of this toll is thought to come from these vast driftnets, so the ban is great news for a host of seabirds, including Tufted Puffins Fratercula cirrhata, Short-tailed Shearwater Ardenna tenuirostris and Thick-billed Murre Uria lomvia, as well as an array of marine mammals, such as Dall’s Porpoise, Ribbon Seals and Pacific White-sided Dolphin.
Driftnets are a type of gillnet – probably what you think of when you hear the words ‘fishing net’. These nets make up meshed ‘walls’ of near-invisible nylon, which capture fish around the gills. Driftnets are deployed at the water's surface and drift in the ocean, often from a boat or another fixed point. Although banned on the high seas in 1991, their use remains legal within a nation’s waters, alongside other types of gillnet.
"The banning of these huge nets in Russian waters is fantastic for an array of wildlife in the northwest Pacific and we support the closure of a fishery with such severe collateral damage to marine wildlife,” said Cleo Small, Head of BirdLife’s Marine Programme. “However, there are still many small-scale gillnet fisheries of immense social and local importance, with lower but still very significant impacts on seabirds, and we recognise that closure is not the way forward everywhere. We will continue to work with fishermen to find vital technical solutions in smaller-scale gillnet fisheries around the world.”
Unlike trawl and longline fisheries, for which effective technical mitigation measures are available (allowing the Albatross Task Force to achieve spectacular bycatch reductions), no such measures have been developed to reduce seabird bycatch in gillnets. Given that it is estimated that 400,000 seabirds are killed in gillnets every year, Birdlife have launched work on numerous fronts to try and solve this problem, including by working directly with sensory scientists to discover what birds see underwater so they can best design mitigation measures; and with fishermen in Lithuania to identify practical solutions that work for both birds and fishermen.
“This is a challenge we must not shy away from”, said Rory Crawford, Senior Policy Officer, BirdLife Global Marine Programme. “BirdLife has achieved huge success in longline and trawl fisheries by working with fishermen—the time is ripe to bring this experience to bear in gillnet fisheries. By collaborating with gillnetters, I am convinced we can reduce seabird bycatch.”
The Gillnet Bycatch Problem Key Facts
• Gillnets are invisible to birds and animals
• 400,000 seabirds are killed per year in gillnets
• In terms of pure numbers: more birds are affected by gillnet fishing than by trawling or longlining
• A different group of birds affected by gillnets too, plus many marine mammals and turtles
• Fisheries management issues can be difficult in gillnet fleets because they are often comprised of large numbers of highly-dispersed, small vessels
• Birdlife are currently trialling gillnet bycatch mitigation techniques to save threatened species and keep common birds common.