Getting Serious About Illegal Tuna Fishing in the Mediterranean

NOTE: This is a guest post from Lee Crockett, Director of Federal Fisheries Policy at the Pew Environment Group.

This post is part of Pew’s Overfishing 101 series. Previous posts can be viewed here.

Driftnets sound relatively harmless as a fishing method. But as any marine biologist will tell you, this gear threatens ocean wildlife. At its November meeting, however, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) could take steps to enforce current international prohibitions on the usage of this damaging practice.

Held on the sea’s surface or just below with floating devices, driftnets can be miles long. Depending on the size of the mesh, they can entangle anything that happens to swim nearby, including sea turtles, whales, swordfish and tuna.

Banned But Still in Use

Most countries recognized that driftnets harm too many marine species (PDF) to remain an acceptable form of fishing. The United Nations banned them on the high seas in 1993, and the European Union followed suit in 2002. In 2003, ICCAT prohibited the use of driftnets to catch tuna and swordfish. Yet an active, illegal driftnet fishery still exists in the Mediterranean, with Italy having one of the largest fleets.

This illegal operation still exists because the European Union didn’t ask Italy and others to halt driftnets outright. Once the ban took effect, rather than being sanctioned for their illegal driftnet activities, these countries received large sums of money from national and EU funds to convert to other fishing methods. Italian boat owners, captains, and crew members received more than €100 million (US$136 million), and that’s when things got complicated.

Italian law accounts for two types of driftnets. Spadare are high-seas driftnets that have been banned by all international bodies active in the Mediterranean, the EU, and, theoretically, Italy. Ferrettare were originally designed as small-scale nets to catch nearshore species along the Italian coast. In recent years, the mesh size has increased, enabling smaller fish to pass through unharmed while conveniently—and illegally—catching valuable Atlantic bluefin tuna and swordfish.

Various legal changes in Italy have also allowed ferrettare to be used far beyond the coast. This facilitates the continued use of driftnets to catch threatened species, despite numerous bans and the condemnation of the international community.

For years, conservation groups documented the Italian fleet’s use of driftnets to catch bluefin tuna, swordfish and other vulnerable marine species. From 2005 to the beginning of this year, more than 317 vessels were identified as fishing illegally. Of these, 89 received funds from the EU and the Italian government to convert to other fishing methods. Sanctions imposed by the Italian government on these vessels have been described as “derisory” and inadequate. They have had little or no effect on illegal activities and are seen by vessel owners merely as an additional operating cost.

Getting Serious

The EU, though, seems finally to have had enough of this noncompliance. In Ponza, Italy, EU inspectors found driftnets on numerous fishing vessels, all appearing significantly longer than the allowed length of ferrettare. Local authorities told the inspectors that they had not conducted any onboard investigations since the start of the driftnet season, even though the vessels—with the illegal nets in plain sight—are moored approximately 100 yards from the Italian coast guard’s offices.

In July, Italian media reported on a widespread, well-established operation to falsify and avoid bluefin catch documents, which are meant to accompany legally caught bluefin tuna through the market. Violations with potential fines worth up to €3.6 million ($5 million) have been identified, and 70 wholesale and retail operators are under investigation. Authorities suspect that much of the tuna found through this operation was caught by driftnets.

Several steps must be taken to solve this issue. Loopholes in the Italian law must be closed, and ferrettare must be prohibited. On September 21, because of pressure from the EU, Italy revised its regulations for ferrettare, limiting their use to three miles from shore and reducing the mesh size to four inches, but keeping the permitted length at 1.5 miles. This is the latest attempt by the Italian ministry to avoid heavy sanctions that the EU is threatening to apply. Given Italy’s record on enforcement, a more straightforward solution would be to ban ferrettare outright.

On September 29, the EU announced it is beginning legal proceedings against Italy for its continued use of illegal driftnets. This is encouraging, but the EU should closely monitor Italy on this issue and take necessary action if no adequate progress is made.

ICCAT must also take action. Member countries should put Italian operators who have violated driftnet regulations on its illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing vessel list. Identifying these operations, in addition to the ferrettare ban, is a step in the right direction.

Given the significant threats to marine life, this action is long overdue.


W. C
W. C4 months ago


William C
William C4 months ago

Thank you.

Bill K.
Bill K6 years ago

there is ( and has never been) such thing as a sustainable commercial "harvest" of wild species. going vegan is the only way to stop the devastation humans are causing in the oceans. the oceans simply can't support the gluttonous demand of 7 billion people (and 1/3rd of fish caught are fed to livestock). in reality seafood is sea life and in the sea is where they should remain.

Christine Stewart

Driftnets and even longline fishhooks are bad- the animals drown long before the fishermen discover what has been caught- so if sea turtles or non-target fish have been caught- they are simply discarded as waste- killed for no good reason other than laziness. A good reason to not eat fish- to protest the killing of sea turtles and other animals while the fish are being caught.

clara H.
Clara Hamill6 years ago

I think it's time to stop illeagl tuna fishing. I don't think the vegans on here trying to push their diet is going to help people should unite and help save what we can.

Aurora Delgado
Aurora Delgado6 years ago

Europe is totally unable to make a decision: each country is thinking on its own benefit. Only works the "economic part": we have our salaries cut, less social and health services, increased taxes, no retirements...but everything that is not money is not important for them. They don't care about environment and allow every country to do what they want about it. It's only a stupid "market".

Marie W.
Marie W6 years ago

Get serious EU, though I think you have already missed the boat.

Lynn C.
Past Member 6 years ago

Too little - too late. With the reduced numbers and decimation of other species it's going to be touch and go as it is; then throw in contamination, oil spills, chemicals everywhere, and a dash of radiation here and there and even if they manage to survive, they won't be edible.

Brian F.
Brian F6 years ago

We have reached the point where human beings are destroying this earth. The only solution to over fishing is to declare the entire ocean a no take, no fishing marine reserve. Many would argue for regulation and catch quota's, but I say we need to ban ocean fishing permanantly to allow our severely dwindling fish stocks to rebound. Lions and other land animals are becoming extint in Africa due to loss of habitat and hunting. Fish are also becoming extinct due to overfishing. If our wildlife die, so do we die.

Yvette T.
Past Member 6 years ago

Even fly fisherman release many of the fish they catch ONE AT A TIME! Nothing compares to mans' variety of senseless ways via which we are destroying life that was made abundant by Mother Nature. ALL OF THESE KILLINGS MUST END NOW. The most effective way to obtain this end is to STOP EATING SENTIENT BEINGS TOTALLY. As long as there is a market for dead animals, billions of people will continue to earn their livings and beyond (greed comes in) by killing killing killing, polluting, devastating. GO VEG TO RESTORE NATURE.