Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly attributed a study of the harmful effects of driftnets to the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The study was produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This report has been updated.
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, Calif.
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 driftnet, 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 driftnet industry announced Tuesday. Cahill and other divers, as well as activists posing as members of boat crews, filmed sharks, dolphins, porpoises and sunfish either 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 driftnets, which can run a mile long and as deep as 100 feet.
“For every one swordfish caught by the driftnet fishery, an estimated seven other marine animals are being entangled and killed,” the groups said in a statement. “Driftnet 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 already considering a way to persuade commercial fishermen to replace their driftnets 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 claimed, 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 driftnets results in the suffocation and torture of . . . conscious, feeling sea animals each year,” Matt Rice, president of Mercy for Animals, said in the statement. Cassie Burdyshaw, advocacy and policy director for the Turtle Island group, called driftnets “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.”
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations issued a technical paper on how lethal driftnets can be. “The large number of species taken in driftnets 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, driftnets 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: Driftnets 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.
Among the animals that driftnets have caught and killed are gray whales, humpback whales, leatherneck and loggerhead sea turtles, northern fur seals, numerous species of porpoises and dolphins. “Although the capture of large numbers of non-target species is not a unique feature of driftnets,” the technical paper 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.”
The idea for an investigation was inspired by Stewart and Cahill in October 2016. There had been talk among activists that summer about the destructive power of the driftnet fishery and that something had to be done about it. Cahill recalled saying, “I guess that has to be us,” and the two friends started the collaboration, calling Turtle Island.
When the group was formed, it hired a spotter plane to fly over the Channel Islands to observe fishing boats. In December 2016, the day before that first dive, the plane spotted six commercial boats. A crew of five activists rented a fishing boat to find where they place their nets, mark the spot, then go back out under the cover of darkness to dive and film.
They were spotted by fishing crews before Stewart and Cahill could jump in the ocean. “The people who were out there on the boats were not happy to see us,” Cahill recalled Tuesday. “They were yelling profanities. What they’re doing is legal but they know what they’re doing is not right.”
And they knew the activists were filming. Cahill and Stewart slipped on their gear in the cold December air. With the fishing vessels close by, they started out at the tail end of their driftnet and swam the mile length. They had to hurry. The quarry was dangling in the nets, waiting to be reeled in, and could easily entangle the activists along with it.
About a year later, Stewart, a Canadian filmmaker who was considered a champion among environmentalist, died in a diving accident off Islamorada in the Florida Keys. He was filming a documentary called “Sharkwater Extinction” at a shipwreck there.
With his friend gone, Cahill completed a final dive for the investigation in January with photographer Paul Nicklen, a co-founder of SeaLegacy. Once again, they found swordfishing boats near Catalina Island.
“We could see the boat fishing in the distance,” Nicklen said. He was astonished by the size of the net. “I’ve seen Inuit fish with a 20-foot net, but this was a mile long and 100 feet deep. We saw a really nice big sunfish. They have big eyes that give them a human characteristic. It was caught and slowly dying, taking its last breath.”
They didn’t have time to see much else.
“We saw the boat turn around,” Nicklen said. “We didn’t want to get caught in the net.”