Copyright © 2006-10 Kaipara Branch, Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand Inc. All rights reserved

Set nets kill nearly every fish, bird and marine mammal that swims into them. They are perhaps the most wasteful and indiscriminate fishing method ever developed.

Set nets are used widely in New Zealand waters by recreational and commercial fishers, yet they are as deadly as drift nets.

They should be banned to help make New Zealand's waters safer for all marine life.

A set net is a type of gill net. Those gill nets not anchored to the seabed are called drift nets. Drift nets over 1 kilometre long were banned in New Zealand waters in 1989, after a long campaign by conservationists.

Today nearly all gill nets are made of monofilament nylon strands. In New Zealand waters some commercial fishers regularly set 20 km of set nets a day.

They are strip mining our coastal waters.  Set nets strip inshore waters of marine life. Slow-growing reef fish are easily over-exploited by this kind of fishing.

The following birds, marine mammals and turtles have been reported caught in set nets in New Zealand waters: crested grebe; sooty shearwater; fluttering shearwater; Hutton's shearwater; yellow-eyed penguin; blue penguin; Fiordland crested penguin; gannet; black shag; pied shag; little black shag; little shag; Stewart Island shag; spotted shag; brown teal; harrier hawk; New Zealand dotterel; black-backed gull; scamperdown beaked whale; orca; bottle-nosed dolphin; dusky dolphin; Hooker's sea lion; fur seal; leathery turtle; Hector's dolphin.

Between the mid-1970s and 1993 more than 50 yellow-eyed penguins and about 730 shearwaters, 250 shags and 250 Hector's dolphins have been reported drowned in set nets.

Most captures of marine mammals and birds are never reported. The reported kills are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg and give a tiny hint of the size of the underwater carnage.

Ghost fishing

When set nets are discarded or lost, and this happens frequently, they continue to "ghost fish" for years because they are made of Iong-lasting synthetic plastic. Nets are often lost on reefs.

Many of the dead and injured fish drop out as the net is pulled in or are attacked by marine scavengers and have to be discarded. Badly placed or lost nets are dangerous to boats and divers.

Set netting is a bulk fishing method. It can hardly be described as a valid recreational or sporting activity.

Current Set Net Rules For Amateurs

Illegal set netting is widespread in New Zealand waters, where an estimated 60,000 amateurs use set nets. For example, fisheries officers seized 720 illegally placed set nets in the Manukau Harbour on just one day in January 1989.

Ban set nets!

The amateur fishing regulations are available from MAF free of charge. The main laws that apply nationally to amateur set netting are:

  1. BulletAny net or nets either individually or jointly must not extend more than a quarter of the way across any bay, channel, river or stream.

  2. BulletNets must not be set in a way that causes fish to be stranded by the falling tide.

  3. BulletThe use of stakes to secure nets s prohibited.

  4. BulletEach end of a net must have a surface buoy marked with the fisher's initials and surname.

  5. BulletSet nets must not exceed 60 metres in length.

  6. BulletOnly one set net (maximum 60 metres) and one bait net (maximum 10 metres with a mesh size of 50mm or less) can be carried on a boat at any one time.

  7. BulletNets must not be set within 60 metres of another net.

  8. BulletA set net may not be used as a drag net if it exceeds 40 metres in length.

If you see an illegal set net please report it to the compliance officer at your local Ministry of Fisheries office.  The phone number of the Auckland office is (9)  820 1990.

Even if obeyed to the letter, however, these regulations or even stricter controls can never make set nets environmentally acceptable. Like drift nets they should be outlawed.


In many countries the use of set nets is very restricted. Many states in the USA ban or tightly control set nets. In California the set nets are banned in water shallower than 100m. Texas, Florida and Washington have similar bans. Several European states have similar controls, including Denmark, Italy, England and Scotland. In Australia amateur set netting is not permitted except in Tasmania.

As Professor David Gaskin of the University of Guelph, Ontario, said "There is hardly a civilised Fisheries Department in the world that would not ban this sloppy terrible method of fishing if the politicians would show some backbone."

A gill net ban

The most selective fishing methods should be used wherever possible. New Zealanders were outraged when foreign drift-netters moved into the South Pacific. Why then do we allow set-netting and mini-driftnetting close to shore, where many birds and marine mammals are vulnerable? Virtually every fish species sought commercially or valued by amateurs can be caught by alternative methods, such as line fishing and drag netting. Although in the short term a ban would be opposed by some commercial and amateur fishers, it would breathe some life into depleted coastal and reef fish populations which have taken a hammering from this indiscriminate fishing method. A gill net ban would lead to enhanced fish populations and to a healthier marine ecosystem.

(Source: Forest and Bird)