Longlining and gillnetting – a photo essay

Words by James Hanson
Photographs by Kristian Buus / Greenpeace


In the autumn of 2021, Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior III vessel spent three weeks at sea off the South West coast of the UK, documenting and monitoring industrial fishing activities taking place inside Marine Protected Areas.

These areas exist to safeguard important marine habitats, protect biodiversity, preserve blue carbon stores and to give space for fish populations to recover. In the Southwest, they include The Canyons MPA, a unique marine area containing one of the UK’s deep sea coral reefs, and others like the South-West Deeps MPA and the North-West of Jones Bank MPA, both of which exist to protect seabed habitats.

But there’s a catch… while the UK government has designated vast areas of the UK’s waters as protected, they have failed to implement tangible protection against industrial fishing in the vast majority of our supposedly protected areas at sea. That’s why we went to sea to document, confront and expose the environmental destruction still taking place in areas that are supposed to be protected.

Our crew on the Rainbow Warrior witnessed two types of fishing that you’ve probably never heard of; gillnetting and longlining. This photo essay contains some graphic images of these fishing methods, illustrating what’s happening at sea every single day.

So, what is longlining exactly? Longlining is a fishing method which involves boats dragging long lines, sometimes hundreds (yes you read that right, hundreds) of kilometres long, in their wake with thousands of baited hooks attached to these longlines. This method can be used to catch mid-water and bottom dwelling species like swordfish and sharks.

Longlining might seem innocuous, but it can have serious consequences for marine life like seabirds, as well as the fish species being targeted. It can also lead to high levels of bycatch and discards, when fish species that fishers don’t mean to catch are illegally thrown overboard, as seen in one of the images below.

We know that thousands of sea turtles, sea birds and millions of sharks are killed every year in longline fisheries all over the world, from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific. We often think these more damaging methods only happen far away on the high seas, but in reality, they’re happening right here on our doorstep.

What’s even worse is it’s taking place in parts of UK waters that are supposed to be protected. Yet more evidence of the gap between the government’s promises and the reality of our marine protected areas, where industrial fishing in the form of longlining and bottom trawling as well as the sighting of factory-sized trawlers is rife.

We know bottom trawling and supertrawlers need to be banned from the entire MPA network for it to be effective, along with other destructive methods like longlining. These forms of fishing have no place in our protected areas at sea. It’s time for the government to act.

As for gillnetting, there are a few different types of it, and the term can cover stationary or mobile gillnetting. Generally, the method involves a wall of net that hangs in the water, a bit like a curtain which catches fish. That’s why gillnetting is sometimes nicknamed the ‘wall of death’. The size of the netting mesh can be adapted depending on the species being targeted, but despite this the method can still lead to high levels of bycatch.

It’s hard to get a sense of scale when just seeing the nets coming out of the water, but these nets can cover vast areas, and entangle huge quantities of marine life. In the Indian Ocean earlier this year we came across gillnets that were seven miles long and hung ten metres deep.

Because gillnets are set to fish and then left behind, they often get lost at sea. Lost nets then remain at sea, indiscriminately catching marine life for no reason. These lost nets are referred to as ‘ghost nets’ and because most nets are made using plastic, as well as harming the marine life being caught in the ghost nets, they also contribute to the plastic pollution crisis which is poisoning our oceans.

Even though gillnets are supposed to be selective in the species they catch, they still pose a significant threat to larger marine mammals like dolphins, porpoises, and rays.

And then there is ‘dark fishing’ which describes the switching off of satellite tracking systems. Our crew on the Rainbow Warrior also discovered illegal AIS dark fishing activity taking place in the Marine Protected Areas off the UK’s South West coast.

When boats are AIS dark, it means their satellite tracking system (also known as AIS) isn’t transmitting. This can happen due to mechanical failures, or because skippers want to conceal their fishing activity from the competition. In either case, this is illegal under UK and international maritime law because AIS satellite tracking systems are a safety measure that exists to help prevent collisions at sea.

Greenpeace documented one instance of a vessel fishing without a functioning AIS system while operating inside Marine Protected Areas on this trip, following on from Greenpeace documenting extensive and systematic AIS dark fishing on the Dogger Bank in the summer of 2020.

This is a story that has been told before, with previous Greenpeace research expeditions finding similar circumstances in protected areas elsewhere, like the Dogger Bank in the North Sea. Unfortunately, the government seems to continue to turn a blind eye to this dangerous and illegal practice, continually ignoring Greenpeace documentary evidence and failing to take action despite the hazard this practice poses to other seafarers.

The UK loves to claim it’s a global ocean champion, leading the way in ocean protection. The reality is that while the UK’s marine protection looks great on paper, it is weak and almost anything goes in the UK’s network of Marine Protected Areas, including extensive illegal AIS dark fishing.

The UK government could prove its credentials as a global ocean champion by banning the worst forms of destructive industrial fishing from all of the UK’s protected areas at sea.

Photographs by Kristian Buus / Greenpeace