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Empty Nets

New law will end driftnets in U.S. waters

In September, California governor Jerry Brown signed legislation to prohibit the use of large-mesh driftnets off the state’s coast. California is the last coastal U.S. state to allow these destructive “walls of death.”

The nets are over a mile long and hang 100 feet into the ocean, threatening any animal who encounters them, including members of endangered and protected species. This is why other coastal states and many countries around the world have banned them. In California, about 20 boats in the commercial fishing industry still use driftnets to catch swordfish and thresher sharks.

But driftnets are passive, indiscriminate killers, and their mesh is designed to select for size, not species.

More than half the fish caught in the nets are discarded as untargeted “bycatch,” many dead or injured. And the nets ensnare dozens of other marine animals, such as whales, sea lions, dolphins, seabirds, and leatherback turtles. Most of these air-breathing animals drown after becoming entangled, fighting to free themselves and reach the surface.

We knew how destructive these nets were to marine ecosystems and wildlife, and we knew we had to act.

A brave MFA investigator went undercover on some of the boats in the California fishery to document the violence and pain their victims suffer when hauled aboard: animals stabbed and dismembered while conscious, sharks beaten with a baseball bat, and scores of fish callously thrown on deck and left to suffocate.

MFA worked with other animal protection organizations—Turtle Island Restoration Network, SeaLegacy, and Sharkwater—to form the End Driftnets Coalition and released a groundbreaking investigation in April and a second investigation a month later.

The response was fierce and unwavering. Several major news outlets covered the investigations; the disturbing videos and images spread through social media; and our website BanDeathNets.com called people to action, directing them to two pieces of legislation, state and federal, that sought to end the use of these driftnets for good.

Thanks to pressure from MFA supporters and other concerned citizens, the bill in California, SB 1017, moved quickly through the state senate and passed the assembly nearly unanimously.

Introduced by California senator Ben Allen, the bill establishes a four-year phase-out period after which all existing large-mesh drift gillnet permits will be revoked. To hasten the transition, the bill sets up an incentive program, a $1 million fund for those who surrender their permits and nets before they are officially banned. As this fund is limited, many permit holders are expected to cooperate, thus preventing suffering for countless animals.

The widespread support for and quick passage of this bill show the changing attitudes toward marine life. While this ban is a victory that will spare thousands of animals each year, it is but one step on the path to protecting fish and other marine animals from the destructive fishing industry.

To bring the swiftest end to their suffering we must withdraw our support of this industry by leaving fish off our plates.

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