Fighting for Fish

Rare undercover footage exposes California's fishing industry

The stakes were higher.

As the number of MFA investigations approached 70, only one brought viewers inside a fish facility. And that was back in 2011.

With trillions of fish killed every year, we knew we had to see inside the commercial fishing industry. Obtaining footage in factory farms and slaughterhouses is a challenge; getting investigators onto fishing vessels is virtually impossible.

Only 20 boats operate in California’s driftnet fishing industry.

A heroic MFA investigator managed to board two of them.

The investigator recorded hours of horrific footage showing marine animals beaten and tortured.

In our first-ever investigation into this brutal business, MFA combined our gripping video with footage shot by Turtle Island Restoration Network, SeaLegacy, and Sharkwater. The investigation unveils an industry that leaves its victims to slowly suffocate, violently saws off the fins of live fish, and drowns animals entangled in its nets.

For every targeted fish trapped, California’s driftnet fishery traps or kills an estimated seven other marine animals, including dolphins, sharks, and sea lions.

Deadly Design

Driftnets are often dropped into the ocean with no regard for the diverse sea life they ensnare.

Kept vertical with floats and weights, nets descend as far as 100 feet, creating a “curtain of death” for marine animals.

Designed to kill, the loose netting easily snags a fish’s tail and fins. As fish struggle to escape, they become more and more entangled.

Other fish are ensnared when their gills get stuck in the net.

Driftnets can legally be about 1.7 miles long.

The nets indiscriminately grab thousands of animals, from small fish to large mammals, in one haul. Because the nets hang near the water’s surface, dolphins and other air-breathing animals are often trapped.

Advances in materials have made the nets harder for animals to see. Some fisheries even use clear plastic. Parts of the net can break off, sinking to the ocean floor or drifting onto beaches, harming sea life and shorebirds.

Fish suffocate when trapped in the nets or when pulled from the water and thrown on deck. Like all animals, they fight. They don’t want to die.

Tortured and Tossed

The California driftnet industry kills more sharks than it does swordfish, its target species.

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data, driftnets have killed more than 87,000 sharks, 3,400 dolphins, 1,100 sea lions, 380 whales, and 100 sea turtles over the past 25 years. NOAA also estimates that fishers keep only 22 percent of their catches.

Megamouth sharks are so rare scientists know little about them and do not know how many exist. Fifteen of these animals were killed by this industry in the past decade.

MFA’s investigator witnessed sharks pierced with hooks and sawed apart while still alive.

In one hidden-camera scene, a bloody and helpless shark suffocates on deck. His gills move up and down, desperate for water. He flaps around trying to escape while his energy slowly fades.

Moments earlier he was hauled aboard, entangled in a driftnet. Workers heartlessly sawed off his tail’s caudal fin.

While some animals are viciously killed aboard boats, others slowly drown when they can’t surface for air.

In another video segment, men in orange waders watch as the corpse of a long-beaked common dolphin is pulled in.

The thick black netting wraps around her.

Law of the Sea

California has jurisdiction within 200 nautical miles of the state’s shoreline.

Beyond this are international waters. In 1992 the United Nations banned large-scale driftnet fishing in these waters and the U.S. strongly supported the ban.

MFA supporters are working to pass two bills.

A federal bill aims to phase out the use of large-scale driftnets within 200 nautical miles of a U.S. shoreline.

The draft legislation outlines a program to buy back permits and ensure new permits are not issued. Senators Dianne Feinstein, Kamala Harris, and Shelley Moore Capito introduced the legislation in April.

Another bill in California’s state legislature would also phase out driftnets. The measure would create a similar program to buy back permits, increase the cost of a permit, and suspend a permit if a fisher exceeds certain bycatch limits. The bill unanimously passed the California State Senate and now heads to the state assembly. If you live in California, take action now.

Driftnet fishing has already been banned by the U.N. and several countries. It has been phased out off the U.S. East Coast and driftnet boats cannot come ashore in Oregon and Washington.

Take action at

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