Graphic Undercover Footage of Dead Dolphins, Sharks Could Make This Fishing Net Illegal

Driftnets are tall, long nets that fisheries use, in theory, to catch swordfish. But, in federal waters off the coast of the only US state where the use of drift nets is legal, they're catching a lot more than that. These "walls of death," as some opponents call them, catch dolphins, seals, sunfish, birds, and sharks, and the dead and dying animals are often simply thrown overboard.

Now, in response to footage from an undercover investigation exposing the marine animal deaths that these nets cause, lawmakers have proposed federal legislation to end their use off the American coasts entirely.

A group called The End Driftnets Coalition formed and obtained undercover footage, which they are using to argue that the government should control drift net usage. In response to the shocking footage, Senators Dianne Feinstein, Kamala Harris and Shelley Moore Capito introduced the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act, which is intended to phase out the use of these nets from the U.S.

Lindsay Wolfe, a representative for Mercy for Animals, told Newsweek that 60 percent of animals caught in these nets are "bycatch," or non-target species that are caught accidentally. The ocean sustainability nonprofit Oceana confirms this number. "Driftnets are incredibly cruel," Wolfe said. "It's essentially dumping a huge net that's a mile long, 100 feet deep, which collects anything in its path. It's a tremendously inefficient method and there's a huge amount of bycatch."

Mercy For Animals is an organization that is focused on exposing and criticizing the meat industry, and it is the primary organization leading the coalition. They regularly publish undercover footage of farms and slaughterhouses, calling for legislation to more strictly regulate animal agriculture. The marine life advocacy organizations SeaLegacy, Sharkwater, and Turtle Island Restoration Network made up the rest of the coalition.

A fisherman cuts off the fin of a live shark incidentally caught in a driftnet. Mercy For Animals Investigations

Making Changes

These nets are already banned in Oregon, Washington, the Atlantic Coast, Hawaii, Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, according to a press release from Feinstein's website. That means California is the only place where fishing companies can bring their kills to land after hauling up drift nets. If the Act passes, companies will have to phase out using these nets by 2020, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, will have authority to help fishing companies switch to more sustainable methods. At the same time, California is considering SB-1017, which would make using driftnets more expensive by increasing permitting fees and mandating that each ship hires someone to document bycatch.

"In the end, it will ideally be a ban," Wolfe said.

Cassie Burdyshaw of Turtle Island Restoration Network told Newsweek that catching swordfish isn't worth the environmental destruction that it causes, even though populations of swordfish aren't threatened. "The stock the population is doing ok," she said. But that's not true for some of the other animals that end up in driftnets. "There are other ways to catch swordfish if people want to do that that are leaps and bounds better for the environment."

An ocean sunfish, or mola mola, is caught in a driftnet. Paul Nicklen / SeaLegacy and Turtle Island Restoration Network Investigations

Tough Numbers

It's hard to say how many animals are killed when fishermen catch swordfish. While the coalition argues that driftnets catch seven non-target animals for every one swordfish, veteran driftnet fisherman Gary Burke says that doesn't mean the other animals go to waste.

In an interview with the Orange County Register, Burke argues that most of the other animals caught by driftnets are either returned alive to the sea or are processed for humans to eat. He also said that he was appalled by the video that showed a worker cutting off a live shark's fins to get it out of a net, and that it's not standard practice.

Data from NOAA confirms that most animals caught are not swordfish, but 31 percent of that bycatch was harvested for seafood. Only 12 percent of the animals thrown into the ocean were dead, but Burdyshaw told the Register that animals returned to the ocean technically alive were likely injured and dying. Oceana writes that the chance that an animal will survive being caught varies greatly on the species and gear types. Still, Oceana formally supports ending the use of drift nets, as well as the federal proposal. Oceana uses the same term to describe drift nets that the coalition uses: "walls of death."

Members of the coalition and conservationists argue that it's time for California and the country to formally move past drift nets in order to preserve the marine ecosystem. "If we want to have seafood moving forward we need to protect the environment," Burdyshaw said. "And that's something that so far the management bodies for this fishery have failed to do."

Estimates regarding driftnet use and "bycatch," or animals caught accidentally. Courtesy of Oceana