Chapter 16: Fishing Net Entanglement

Ranking alongside industrial pollution, net entanglement poses a huge threat to cetaceans. The problem is the huge amount of ships fishing the oceans with mono-filament nylon, nylon that can't be detected by the echo-location or sonar of cetaceans. They are literally silent walls of death from which there is little or no escape. Animals are known to have torn their fins or beaks off in frantic but unsuccessful escape bids. Nameless animals, their death invariably unknown to the outside world, save for the fishermen, who cut their lifeless bodies out of the net are known as by-catch, an incidental consequence of peoples' love of fish flesh it would seem.

To maximise fish catches, the size of nets has grown in size too. Iceland developed one that could envelop twelve jumbo jets. These industrialised nets and ships can spend considerable time at sea. During the sea-bass winter fishing season in the English channel, ships can fish for 23 hours of the day. Using a technique called pair-trawling, where two ships moving in parallel and with a net slung between, they trawl for the bass. Dolphins seeking a free meal go into the net and then are unable to escape and die.

During the winter months, in the last years the numbers of dolphins found washed up on the UK’s south-west coastline have increased. Post-mortems show the most significant reason for death is by-catch. Yet it seems the British public is prepared to pay the price. The individual consumer is culpable for the death of dolphins by buying the fish. The European Union subsidises French and Spanish ships to fish in the African countries' territorial waters of Senegal and Mauritania. These fishing waters were once fished exclusively by artisan boats. The problem is not restricted to the UK, nor Africa, but is worldwide. Gill nets, trawl nets, drift nets, purse-seine nets, long-lines, all scoop fish and cetaceans out of the seas in terrible numbers. What can be done to stop this relentless and remorseless havoc?

In the late 1980s public protests about the dolphins being caught in purse-seine nets in the Pacific ocean alongside the target fish of yellow-fin tuna helped develop the dolphin friendly or safe tuna label. This labelling ensures no dolphins have been chased or herded into a net whilst the tuna was being caught. It's helped saved dolphin lives, but also seems to have persuaded the buying public that as long as they were buying dolphin friendly tuna, there were no problems, or no other threats to dolphins from other nets. A bit like the debate for cruelty-free cosmetics has been won in the UK, but the argument against animal research and vivisection has not. The public will ultimately decide if the fish on their plate is a price they can accept and if the answer is no, then by boycotts and purchasing with more scrutiny it could bring a more sustainable form of fishing and less by-catch.

By-catch day
I combined attending this little gathering protesting about dolphin bycatch at 10 Downing Street in 2000, with an even smaller gathering (just me and one other person) of a picket at the Canadian consulate in regard to West Edmonton.