The quality of the Videotape is poor, but the evidence is there. Out of the scratchy grayness and into focus comes a section of a commercial fishing net, entangled in rocks on the seabed 200 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Maine. The camera—which is mounted on a four-man submarine being controlled by Arnold Carr, a biologist with the Division of Marine Fisheries for the State of Massachusetts—slowly tracks along the length of the net. At first one sees nothing unusual on the monitor, just some seaweed growing on the net. On the tape's audio track Carr notes that the vegetation is Spiro botinia. Then, suddenly, the lens picks up a white object grotesquely twisted in the mesh. It's a shark, long dead. Then more sharks appear, along with codfish, crabs and a lobster. A few of the fish look freshly ensnared, but most are a couple of weeks along in the process of decay.
This net is clearly a highly efficient fish-catching engine. But for two to three years no fisherman has tended it—witness the seaweed entwined in it. Whoever set this net has no idea where it is. Maybe it was torn loose by a storm. Maybe it was set negligently in the first place. But, like a programmed robot lacking a command to halt, it goes on catching and killing, because it is made of virtually indestructible nylon monofilament. It's a gill net gone rogue. Sports fishermen have another name for it—ghost net—and it will go on fishing forever.
It is dawn on Georges Bank, the most famous fishing grounds in American history. Late the night before, 45 of us lugged our cod-fishing rods, tackle boxes and foul-weather gear aboard the party boat Yankee Captains in Gloucester, Mass. We then tried to settle down for a few hours' sleep in the bunks below-decks as she headed out to Georges Bank, a hundred miles southeast of Gloucester. One could argue that historic Georges Bank, with its marvelous bounty of fish, particularly cod, underwrote the European settlement of the Northeast.
As the day breaks, the sea is utterly calm. "Hey," somebody says as the dawn comes up, "we're on Golden Pond!" And, for a while, the fishing is golden, as cod after cod hits our heavy metal lures, which are being worked close to the bottom, 30 fathoms down.
But at precisely 7:05 a.m. it is all over. That's when a commercial fishing boat cuts into our line of drift and begins to pay out a gill net right in our path. Paul Beal, skipper of the Yankee Captains, picks up his bullhorn and tells us to haul up our lines. Otherwise we'll lose our gear. Beal starts the engines, and we move a good distance off from the commercial boat before preparing to begin another drift. Our jigs barely hit bottom again when another commercial craft moves across our bow. There will be six more such incidents before our day's fishing is done. Tony Anisowicz, a sports fisherman from Newton, Mass., says bitterly, "They watch us with binoculars, move in when they see us getting fish. There's no more haddock left. Now they're even gearing up to take pollack."
A nonfisherman might think that Anisowicz has little right to squawk. After all, hasn't Georges Bank—the setting for the maritime classic Captains Courageous, by Rudyard Kipling—been fished commercially for more than three centuries? It has indeed, but not with the gear on the boats we had encountered—i.e., the sophisticated electronic equipment and the monofilament gill nets that have become widely available in the past decade. Gill-netting in particular has spawned a method of commercial fishing so destructive, its critics say, that it threatens sportfishing in the coastal areas of the U.S. where the practice is unregulated. And anglers aren't the only ones who are outraged by the spread of gill-netting. They are joined by ecologists, who are concerned about the casual destruction of marine mammals and shorebirds that become ensnared in the nearly invisible strands of the mesh. Even some of the commercial fishermen who employ traditional methods of catching fish and consequently are threatened with being driven out of business are questioning the unregulated use of such nets.
There's nothing complicated about a gill net. According to the National Coalition for Marine Conservation (NCMC), a nonprofit organization headquartered in Savannah that is dedicated to conserving ocean fish, it is "a flat net whose meshes are capable of capturing fish by permitting head and gill covers to pass through the net in one direction but not be withdrawn." Gill nets used to be expensive because they were made of linen and they required constant repair as the twine quickly grew old and weakened. They also were not all that efficient, because they were highly visibile to their quarry. Now the mesh is made of nondegradable nylon that's almost invisible, and $500 will buy you one of commercial quality.
Gill-netting takes slightly different forms and presents somewhat different problems from place to place. On the Pacific Coast, for example, the NCMC estimates that unanchored pelagic drift nets, suspended at predetermined depths, ensnare and kill an average of about 2,000 sea lions a year, as well as seabirds, turtles, porpoises, dolphins and even whales. At one point, roller-rigged gill nets used off the Florida Keys threatened the population of king mackerel in the Gulf of Mexico (SI, April 13, 1981). Over the last few years the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management councils have slashed the annual commercial quota of the species from 1.66 million pounds in 1985 to 700,000 last year. The NCMC estimates that it will take 15 years for the king mackerel Gulf stock to recover.
The problem is worldwide. To take but one example, the once great Atlantic salmon fishery in Ireland is threatened by virtually unregulated gill-netting, and there have been outbreaks of violence in Britain between sports fishermen and gill-netters.
The problem sometimes is manifested in unexpected ways. The plastic rings that hold canned drinks together in six-packs become miniature gill nets when they are discarded in the sea. When fish and birds get caught in the rings, they often starve because they cannot swallow properly or are slowly garroted as they grow larger.