Driftnets are indiscriminate killers and their use results in the needless deaths of thousands of marine animals, including sharks, rays, dolphins and turtles. WWF Deutschland, Flickr

Hanging loosely just below the water's surface, they're what conservationists like to call 'walls of death'. The long stretches of fine nylon netting are also known as driftnets, and they're designed to allow fishing fleets to bring in large hauls of fish in one catch. But the nets' treacherous folds also indiscriminately snag many marine animals that are of no value to fishermen, but are mighty valuable to the ocean ecosystem, including dolphins, sharks, turtles, seals and even birds. Now, the European Commission wants to put an end this destructive fishing practice once and for all, and has proposed a complete ban on any kind of driftnets for fishing in all EU waters from the start of next year.

Existing EU rules already prohibit the use of driftnets for catching migratory fish like tuna and swordfish, but the nets have remained in use in the Mediterranean thanks to regulatory loopholes, deliberate misinterpretation, a lack of enforcement and weak punishments – and they continue to cause needless deaths when non-target marine animals (commonly referred to as bycatch) become entangled in them.

Addressing the media at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels earlier this week, European Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Maria Damanaki said that a total ban was the only solution. "Fishing with driftnets destroys marine habitats, endangers marine wildlife and threatens sustainable fisheries. I am convinced that the only way to eradicate this once and for all is to have clear rules which leave no room for interpretation. We need to close any possible loopholes and simplify control and enforcement by national authorities," she said.

The proposed ban, which will now go before the EU's 28 member states for approval, has been welcomed by conservationists. However, some organisations have expressed their concerns. Marine conservation organisation Oceana said the proposal was flawed, despite its good intentions, adding that protecting the oceans from driftnets was not about additional regulations, but about enforcement and stronger action against those who continue to use the nets illegally. 

"Illegal driftnets have plagued the Mediterranean Sea for the last 20 years, partly due to legal loopholes that nowadays have been mostly eliminated. Today, few such vessels remain in operation and ending this illegal and unsustainable practice once and for all is instead a matter of control and enforcement," said Oceana's Xavier Pastor.

The Blackfish, a group that campaigns to end illegal and destructive fishing practices, released a statement citing similar concerns, warning that the ban would make little difference unless it's backed up by strengthened enforcement measures. 

"The proposed ban could mean a major step forward towards ending the use of destructive driftnets in European seas. A full ban would leave no doubt as to what is allowed or not. However, concerns remain about its effectiveness when general enforcement efforts aren't stepped up in practice," said the group's international director Wietse van der Werf.

Top header image: Mark Notari, Flickr