On a bitterly cold morning around sunrise, Brock Cahill and Rob Stewart put on scuba gear and slipped into the dark ocean waters near Catalina Island off the coast of Long Beach, California.
For most of his adult life, Cahill had wanted to see a thresher shark, with its beautiful whip of a tail fin, in the wild. On that dive, he saw one up close — caught in a drift net, struggling for air and dying.
“To see my first thresher caught up in that net, still alive, still thrashing, was one of the greatest heartbreaks I’ve ever witnessed,” Cahill said. “My diving mask was literally filling up with tears as I watched this thresher dying.”
That dive in December 2016, along with two others over the year that followed, was part of an investigation of the swordfish drift net industry. Cahill and other divers, as well as activists posing as members of boat crews, filmed sharks, dolphins, porpoises and sunfish dying underwater or mutilated by workers who grabbed them with grapple hooks, sliced off fins and cut off tails. The investigation released dramatic footage of the carnage wreaked by drift gill nets in federal waters off the California coast.
The advocates behind the operation — Mercy for Animals, Sharkwater, SeaLegacy and the Turtle Island Restoration Network — hope to persuade the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees commercial and recreational fishing under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to phase out drift nets, which can run a mile long and as deep as 100 feet.
“For every one swordfish caught by the drift net fishery, an estimated seven other marine animals are being entangled and killed,” the groups said. “Drift net fishing has already been banned by the United Nations and countries around the world (most recently Russia). It has been phased out off the East Coast and is not permitted in Oregon or Washington states.”
A spokeswoman for the Pacific Fishery Management Council, Jennifer Gilden, said the National Marine Fishery Service, which like the council is under the federal Commerce Department, is aware of the video and has launched an investigation.
The council would not comment on the investigation, but members are considering a way to persuade commercial fishermen to replace their drift nets with deep-set buoy gear consisting of hooks that can be dropped deep into the ocean. An indicator on the buoy alerts fishermen to a bite, allowing them to pull in the catch and release it if it isn’t a swordfish.
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the gear has been tested by scientists and cooperating fishermen over five years “with minimal bycatch of non-target species and a consistent catch of swordfish,” the organization said. In addition to reducing bycatch, Pew stated, swordfish caught by deep-set buoy gear is higher quality and commands a better price because the fish is fresher and can be put on ice moments after it is caught.
The “use of drift nets results in the suffocation and torture of ... conscious, feeling sea animals each year,” Matt Rice, president of Mercy for Animals, said. Cassie Burdyshaw, advocacy and policy director for the Turtle Island group, called drift nets “death nets,” and said, “Less harmful fishing methods have existed for years. We don’t have to kill endangered sea turtles and whales just to put swordfish on our plates.”
Even the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which continues to allow drift-net fishing, publishes position papers against the practice. Last spring, it posted this: “The large number of species taken in drift nets has already been mentioned in relation to the possible wastage of fishery resources, but this issue is also of concern from other perspectives. The removal of large numbers of animals which are not generally considered as fishery resources, has given rise to environmental concerns in several areas.”
In other words, drift nets are an indiscriminate killer. They are so lethal that they “may threaten the stability of this ecosystem, by catching an unduly large proportion of rare animals with low resilience to exploitation,” the position paper said. The scientific jargon took some of the sting off the concern: Drift nets remove food crucial for many species, and they strip the ocean of rare animals that do not reproduce in large enough numbers to mount a comeback.
“Although the capture of large numbers of non-target species is not a unique feature of drift nets,” the position paper posted by the Pacific Fishery Management Council said, “there is a concern that, because these nets fish near the surface, air breathing animals (mammals, birds and reptiles) feature in the non-target catches in relatively larger numbers, compared with the non-target catches in a ... trawl, for example.”