April 19, 2000
Getting caught in a net off Sri Lanka
This is Roger Payne speaking to you from the Odyssey.
The last time I spoke to you it was about how long lines destroy albatrosses. But long lines are only one of two relatively new techniques that devastate marine life. The other is drift nets. Drift nets are nearly invisible, very flexible nets made of synthetic fibers that entangle any animal larger than their mesh. The nets hang from a line of floats and are invisible at night. They were finally banned on the high seas by a UN resolution, except for the Mediterranean. Such nets are up to sixty miles long, and are set at night and retrieved in the morning along with the animals they have entangled. It used to be that every twenty-four hours between fifty thousand and seventy-five thousand kilometers of drift nets were set and retrieved in the North Pacific alone. The drift net fleet was principally from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan and was the largest fishing fleet on earth.
Drift nets don't only catch fish. It was estimated that each year, in addition to a vast array of nontarget fish species (which were simply thrown away) drift nets accidentally killed hundreds of thousands of marine mammals (e.g., whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, and seals) meaning that at the time they caused more deaths than all other causes combined. They also killed millions of seabirds and untold numbers of sea turtles, since all air-breathing animals drown in drift nets.
Back in the 1980s I was for several weeks aboard a small sailing boat in the waters around Sri Lanka (the old Ceylon) following sperm whales. Sri Lanka had a large drift net fishery operated from small boats. The nets used by the Sri Lankans were about two miles long. Every night at dusk hundreds of small boats made their way offshore, stopped and trailed their nets astern. The only light most of these boats had was a torch made from a local palm tree which burned smokelly and was usually out long before dawn. Having set out his net a fishermen would lie back to sleep for a few hours, waking at dawn to collect his catch.
Because we were following whales all night we had to keep a sharp lookout for nets (detectable from its line of floats) and unlit boats. It was a totally harrowing job. You peered into the darkness, straining to see the nets before you collided with them. At times we found ourselves surrounded by so many nets we could not get through. When we hit a net it sometimes tangled around our directional hydrophone or steering gear, bringing the boat to a stop and breaking the object it tangled on. Often someone had to go over the side to clear the net, an awful job-not because of the sharks lurking in those warm, dark waters, but because of the risk of getting tangled in the net oneself. When that happened you knew that if you made the slightest wrong move you could drown before you could clear yourself. Even with a bright underwater flashlight the netting was all but invisible. I got tangled once. I barely brushed against the net. I recall the horror of discovering how incredibly strong the synthetic fibers were-no hope at all of breaking free with force, every struggle to do so simply increasing the number of fibers by which I was held. Unlike a turtle or dolphin I had a knife. I remember trying to deploy it without getting further entangled (impossible), and the relief I felt when I finally cut myself free. I have no idea how any marine mammal or turtle ever escapes these nets. Indeed one of the people on board our boat studied how many drowned dolphins appeared each year in the Sri Lankan fish markets. It turned out that the drift net fishery was probably killing 18,000 dolphins each year. Sri Lankand had never eaten dolphins before so at first the meat was sold very cheaply, but eventually a market developed for it and the price went up. Then the fishermen started setting nets for dolphins intentionally.
Drift nets are now banned in most ocean areas but it is such a lucrative way to catch fish that lots of cheating still goes on. Driftnets and longlines are the clearest possible examples of how wildlife simply cannot survive the full force of modern technology.
© 2000 - Roger Payne