High-Seas driftnets: Destroyers of the deep

A small boat crew from the Coast Guard Cutter Mellon conducts air operations training with a MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew while underway May 27, 2015. The crew of the Mellon, a 378-foot high-endurance cutter homeported in Seattle, has been patrolling the high seas in search of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activity in support of Operation North Pacific Guard. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

A small boat crew from the Coast Guard Cutter Mellon conducts air operations training with a MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew while underway May 27, 2015. The crew of the Mellon, a 378-foot high-endurance cutter homeported in Seattle, has been patrolling the high seas in search of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activity in support of Operation North Pacific Guard. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Written by Seaman Sarah Wilson

For nearly a year, the net has been forgotten. The fishermen who placed it there never located the radio beacon attached to it, so with a shrug of their shoulders they moved on. Not a single one of them has lost a moment of sleep or wondered what became of it; they didn’t see the dolphins flailing or hear the cries of the whales as the driftnet ensnared entire pods. As weeks passed, the commotion and the scent of prey drew in sharks and seals, and one by one they swam into the wall, where they would either suffocate or starve. Suspended across five miles, the hungry net continues to feed: tuna, turtles, salmon, squid, even birds, until…

“Everything,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Roy Hawes, a boatswain’s mate assigned to U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mellon. “Everything dies.”

Since the Mellon, a 378-foot high-endurance cutter, left its homeport in Seattle in April for Operation North Pacific Guard, the crew has been patrolling the high seas in search of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activity, including high seas driftnet fishing.

Large-scale pelagic driftnet fishing is one of the oldest methods of commercial fishing on the high seas. Driftnet vessels deploy lightweight gill nets – massive mesh curtains up to 10 miles wide and around 50 feet deep – designed to ensnare their catch behind the gills. With floats on the top and weights on the bottom, the nets hang like walls in the water and are left to drift passively with transponders or maker buoys until the vessel is ready to recover its catch.

Although this type of fishing is sometimes legal within some countries’ jurisdictional waters, the United Nations has encouraged all countries to ban the use of large-scale driftnets of 2.5 km or longer on the high seas since the late 1980s because of their significant harmful effects on the ocean environment.

Driftnets have long been considered indiscriminate killers of both target and non-target marine species. When nets are lost at sea they continue to ‘ghostfish,’ sometimes for years, before they are found or wash ashore, killing sea mammals and birds in their wake.

Even when retrieved, the nets exploit an already-fragile marine ecosystem; their impacts are as abysmal as the driftnets themselves, each overharvest enmeshed in excess that threatens global food security and economic stability of legitimate fisherman harvesting by the rules.

“Fishermen engaged in illegal driftnetting typically do not target a single species,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Peter Ingeman, a Coast Guard intelligence specialist temporarily assigned to Mellon for the North Pacific Guard patrol. “Instead, they attempt to profit by selling anything caught in their nets. This includes sea mammals, sharks, and many endangered species of fish.”

Operation North Pacific Guard highlights the type of international cooperation needed to combat large-scale illegal fishing. Underway with the Mellon are two China Coast Guard ship riders and two U.S. Marine Corps interpreters who facilitate international communications between the U.S. and potential vessels of interest. Canada, Japan and several other North Pacific rim nations contribute to the effort as well, each playing a part in the carefully coordinated mission.

“Large scale driftnetting taxes already dwindling fish stocks.” said Ingeman. “As the world food demand increases, so does the need for sustainability within the fishing industry.”

Since the Coast Guard began patrolling the North Pacific in 1993, sightings of high seas driftnet vessels have steadily declined. Between 2000 and 2009, the Coast Guard and partner countries detected more than 160 ships engaged in illegal driftnet fishing. Since 2010 only five have been spotted or seized.

“We have come a long way through cooperative international enforcement efforts, but we have not eliminated the threat,” said Lt. Steven Davies, Mellon’s operations officer. “It’s a big ocean, so it’s not easy.”

While every Coast Guard mission makes a difference, some truly leave a legacy. Defending the high seas from the abuses of illegal and indiscriminate fishing has a global impact that ripples far into the future, ensuring stability and sustenance for generations to come.

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