Drift nets have been illegal for three decades, but some fisheries still use them with deadly consequences. Known as a “wall of death,” these nets are very efficient in scooping up fish. But, by their very nature, they entangle any species they come upon. In 1992, the United Nations banned the use of drift nets in international waters, but a story out of Spain shows that they are still being used even today.
In May 2022, divers were dispatched to rescue a 40-foot-long female humpback whale spotted off the Balearic island of Mallorca. The whale was entangled in a drift net and was spotted in the water by a boat, which called in Palma de Mallorca's Aquarium marine rescue center. After several attempts to cut the net off the whale from the boat were unsuccessful, divers from two local centers were called in to assist.
One of the divers, marine biologist Gigi Torras, described the scene in detail to Reuters. Calling the experience “incredible,” Torras stated, “The first ten seconds she got a bit nervous, you know, like bubbles everywhere, but then I don't know, call me crazy, but I think she knew we were there to help her and she just relaxed and we started working from the front of her mouth backwards. We kept cutting and cutting, and she kind of gave a little wiggle to get herself out of it.”
The whale stayed with the divers for a few moments as she regained her strength and then swam off, giving what Torras interpreted as a “thank you sign” before she left. This moment of triumph for the humpback whale was, unfortunately, short-lived.
A week later, the whale turned up on a Spanish beach over 190 miles away. Specialists examined the whale, which had several cuts on her dorsal fins and was in a weakened state. Taking this into consideration, they took the decision not to push her back out to sea, as they determined that she would not survive the journey. And, in fact, she succumbed to her injuries a short time later.
When informed of the situation, Torras was understandably upset. “It is horrible. This has been really depressing.”
Of course, the fate of this whale is a sad ending to what should have been an uplifting rescue. But the whale's death can also be a moment to understand more about drift net fishing and what we can do the stop this illegal activity before more marine life is harmed.
The Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act is a bill that would ban the use of drift nets in federal waters off California. The act, which passed Congress in 2020 before it was vetoed by President Trump, has been reintroduced, and anyone can tell their representative to support this bill. And anyone, regardless of where they live and the laws in place, can pressure public officials to ban the practice as well as uphold the law by holding fisheries accountable for their actions.
A humpback whale caught in an illegal drift net was rescued by divers off the coast of Mallorca.
Unfortunately, a week later, the whale was found on a beach, succumbing to its injuries, highlighting the importance of enforcing drift net bans.