United Nations Bans the Use of Drift Nets Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In a controversial action, the United Nations banned the extremely damaging fishing technique of using drift nets.

Summary of Event

Drift nets, or gill nets, have been used for thousands of years in the commercial fishing industry. Fish attempt to swim through the net, become entangled in its mesh, and are caught. Such a capture technique is not selective; many types of animals, not only target commercial species, are caught when they encounter the net. In addition to fish, many birds and sea mammals, such as dolphins and whales, are indiscriminately destroyed when fishers use drift nets. During the 1989-1990 fishing season, it was estimated that from 300,000 to 1 million dolphins drowned in drift nets. It was this incidental catch that caused critics to label drift nets “curtains of death.” Fishing industry;drift-net ban[drift net ban] United Nations;drift-net fishing ban[drift net fishing ban] Drift-net fishing ban[Drift net fishing ban] Marine life, protection [kw]United Nations Bans the Use of Drift Nets (Dec. 31, 1992) [kw]Bans the Use of Drift Nets, United Nations (Dec. 31, 1992) [kw]Drift Nets, United Nations Bans the Use of (Dec. 31, 1992) Fishing industry;drift-net ban[drift net ban] United Nations;drift-net fishing ban[drift net fishing ban] Drift-net fishing ban[Drift net fishing ban] Marine life, protection [g]North America;Dec. 31, 1992: United Nations Bans the Use of Drift Nets[08470] [g]United States;Dec. 31, 1992: United Nations Bans the Use of Drift Nets[08470] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 31, 1992: United Nations Bans the Use of Drift Nets[08470] [c]United Nations;Dec. 31, 1992: United Nations Bans the Use of Drift Nets[08470] [c]Animals and endangered species;Dec. 31, 1992: United Nations Bans the Use of Drift Nets[08470] Bolen, Curtis Burke, William T. Unsoeld, Jolene Murkowski, Frank H. Paleokrassas, Yannis

Between 1950 and 1990, there was a 400 percent increase in the harvest of marine fishes; more than ninety million tons of these animals were harvested in 1989. The United States, Japan, the Soviet Union and its fragments, South Korea, and Taiwan accounted for nearly 90 percent of the world’s fishing effort. Between 20 percent and 50 percent of the protein ingested in many Asian and African countries comes from fish. Worldwide, some 200 million people were engaged in fishing in the 1990’s. Annually, approximately $124 billion was spent to harvest about $70 billion worth of fish; government subsidies made up the difference.

Catch levels from drift-net use rose dramatically in the 1980’s, and the fish harvest increased some 33 percent. Five species of fish made up most of this increased harvest: Alaskan pollack, Chilean jack mackerel, Peruvian anchovies, and Japanese and South American pilchards. This increase in the annual catch resulted primarily from the use of new technology. Sonar and radar were used to locate fish, winches and motors were developed to haul up drift nets holding forty thousand pounds or more of fish. In addition, nets became longer, and nylon replaced cotton fibers in the nets. The nylon required fewer repairs, did not deteriorate in salt water as rapidly as cotton, and was stronger than cotton, so nylon nets could catch and hold more fish. Ironically, the United Nations promoted and popularized drift-net fishing technology in the 1970’s as a means to provide protein to feed rapidly increasing human populations in developing countries.

In 1982, passage of the Law of the Sea Treaty Law of the Sea Treaty (1982) repealed the twelve-mile offshore legal boundary for coastal countries and moved this national border to two hundred miles offshore. By 1990, three-fourths of the world’s fish were found in waters controlled by individual nations. Some three million or more vessels actively fished these waters. Overfishing was responsible, at least in part, for the dramatic decline in the abundance of fish in many areas of the marine ecosystem. Fish that migrate long distances and move in and out of the two-hundred-mile limits, such as tuna and swordfish, create serious management problems.

In the late 1980’s, it was estimated that some $22 million worth of nontarget fish species captured by drift nets were wasted each year. These fish were killed in the nets but then discarded by commercial fishers. Shrimp fishing was estimated to waste twenty kilograms of fish for every kilogram of shrimp caught.

In 1989, the United Nations passed a resolution restricting drift-net use in international waters and called for a global moratorium on the use of this modern technology. The administration of U.S. president George H. W. Bush Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;drift-net ban[drift net ban] lobbied hard for this moratorium and greatly aided its passage. The international moratorium on the use of drift nets grew out of activities by groups such as Greenpeace, Greenpeace the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, the American Oceans Campaign, American Oceans Campaign and Defenders of Wildlife. Defenders of Wildlife The South Pacific Forum South Pacific Forum banned the use of drift nets more than 2.5 kilometers (more than 1.5 miles) in length in the territorial waters of its member nations, which covered most of the Pacific. The United Nations stated its worldwide drift-net moratorium in General Assembly Resolution 46/215, passed on December 20, 1991; the ban became effective December 31, 1992.


U.N. General Assembly resolutions do not in themselves constitute binding obligations on U.N. member states; they are only recommendations. To enforce the terms of U.N. resolutions, member states must take action within their own domestic jurisdictions. The initiation of the recommended ban on drift nets was met with varying degrees of compliance by different governments and fishers. One year after the U.N. resolution, most nations honored the ban, but it remained a controversial subject.

Some countries were still allowing the use of drift nets many miles long. Russia, Japan, Canada, and the United States had essentially ceased using drift nets in the northern Pacific Ocean. These nations formed the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission to address issues facing proper management of fisheries in these northern waters. Drift nets of many miles in length all but disappeared from the North Pacific, and drift-net use essentially ceased in the South Pacific. In 1991, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan agreed to stop deploying thirty- to forty-mile-long drift nets in the Pacific Ocean.

In response to some countries’ failure to observe the U.N. ban on drift-net fishing, the U.S. Congress passed the High Seas Driftnet Fisheries Enforcement Act in 1992. High Seas Driftnet Fisheries Enforcement Act (1992) This gave the U.S. Department of Commerce the power to impose sanctions, deny port privileges, or take other measures against nations that violate the U.N. ban. Early in May, 1993, the U.S. Coast Guard boarded two Chinese vessels using drift nets eight hundred miles south of Alaska and ordered both ships to return home. This was the first documented instance of violation of the U.N. resolution banning drift-net fishing. The Republic of China had promised to end drift-net use on the high seas by June, 1992.

Most of the resistance to the drift-net ban came from the European Union. On December 21, 1993, the United Nations again called for all nations to abide by the total ban on drift-net use. The European Parliament Committee on Fisheries was created to address the problems facing fishers of the European countries. Overfishing of waters bordering Europe had depleted fish stocks there, and violent incidents had occurred between fishers competing for resources. Fishers from Spain, the United Kingdom, and France battled in 1993, and in 1994 thirty violent conflicts between fishers were reported to authorities.

Within the European Union, for some time only Greece and Spain supported a total ban on drift-net fishing. After continued debate, however, in 1998 the European Union stated that by 2002 it would no longer allow the use and possession of drift nets by European vessels fishing in European waters. Fishing industry;drift-net ban[drift net ban] United Nations;drift-net fishing ban[drift net fishing ban] Drift-net fishing ban[Drift net fishing ban] Marine life, protection

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barrett, Scott. Environment and Statecraft: The Strategy of Environmental Treaty-Making. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Scholarly work examines the difficulties involved in establishing cooperation among nations for the sake of protecting the environment. Includes discussion of overfishing and the use of drift nets.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baum, Julian. “Nets Across the Strait: Driftnet Fishing Thrives Under Chinese Flag.” Far Eastern Economic Review, July 8, 1993, 22. Discusses the possibility that Taiwanese boats were avoiding Taiwan’s ban on drift nets by flying the Chinese flag and using Chinese ports as bases. Taiwanese fishing companies have argued that the U.N. ban on drift nets does not apply to them because Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Japan to Ban Driftnets!” Earth Island Journal 7 (Winter, 1992): 8. Describes plans by the Japanese government to phase out drift-net use. Discusses the criticism of drift-net use by the United Nations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Patel, Tara. “France Thumbs Its Nose at Drift-Net Ban.” New Scientist 142 (April 30, 1994): 8. Notes the violations of European fishing agreements by France regarding the use of drift nets that came in the wake of a proposed ban on drift nets by the European Commission. Discusses the effects of continued use of drift nets.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rothwell, Donald R. “The General Assembly Ban on Driftnet Fishing.” In Commitment and Compliance: The Role of Non-binding Norms in the International Legal System, edited by Dinah Shelton. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Discusses the U.N. ban as an illustration of the impacts of nonbinding international norms on state behavior.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“U.N. Conference on Environment and Development: Earth Summit Puts Future of Rich and Poor Alike ’in Our Hands.’” U.N. Chronicle 29 (March, 1992): 81. Discusses plans for the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, known more popularly as the Earth Summit, which examined various worldwide environmental issues, including the use of drift nets.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wehrfritz, George. “Gone Fishing: Rogue Trawlers May Be Dodging Official Driftnet Ban.” Far Eastern Economic Review, February 25, 1993. Reveals doubts that Taiwan complied with the U.N. ban on drift nets.

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