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Gillnets: An Indiscriminate Fishery

Editor's note:  if you can’t be in the water witnessing the good, the bad and the ugly, then the next best thing is to see it through the eyes of a passionate photographer. Marine Photobank, a program of SeaWeb, is dedicated to photography that changes the way people interact with the ocean. As part of their mission--to create "compelling images behind the pressing issues of marine conservation"-- they hold an annual contest called "Ocean in Focus."  This year, emerging from a field of 80 participants and six finalists, photojournalist Andy Murch won the grand prize of a ten-day trip on the National Geographic Endeavor, courtesy of Lindblad Expeditions. 

Catch the winning photoessay here. Murch's entry on gillnets, fishing nets placed vertically in the water so that fish are entangled by the gills in its mesh, illustrates one of the top pressures on global fisheries and biodiversity.  Next, take a look at the work of the finalists. The diverse range of topics touches on many goals or components assessed in the Ocean Health Index--from mangroves to clean water to by-catch

Enter the world of "Gillnets:  An Indiscriminate Fishery."

Bat ray entangled and killed in halibut fishing net, with the fishing vessel in the background

Although outlawed in some countries, gillnets are still widely used by artisanal fishermen in the developing world.  Gillnets are indiscriminate killers that drown virtually everything that becomes entangled in them, from dolphins to sharks to turtles. 
In Baja, fishermen use gillnets to target California halibut, a sought-after food fish that fetches a handsome price in the domestic market. The nets are left soaking overnight in onshore habitats that are also important hunting and breeding grounds for many endemic shark and ray species.  

Soupfin shark entangled and killed by a halibut fishing net.

Each morning, the fishermen retrieve their nets and bring home every fish that they find, regardless of their value or conservation status. On the day that I talked my way onto a fishing panga  out of Laguna Manuela Fishing Camp, the crew filled the entire boat with shark and ray by-catch.  Four soupfin sharks (listed as globally vulnerable) and a handful of brown smoothhound sharks were all dead upon retrieval, but many of the rays were still swimming strongly; still clearly viable enough to survive if the fishermen could be convinced to release them.  

By the time we headed back to port, the boat was loaded to the gunnels with elasmobranchs (fish who have a skeleton made of cartilage, including sharks, rays and skates).  Hidden within all that by-catch (that would not even cover fuel for the day) was a single halibut, the intended catch.  

Loads of by-catch for one halibut.

After a gruesome scene on the beach in which the crew cut the wings off of each frantically flapping ray, I accompanied the fishermen to a dumping ground in the desert.  While struggling with the overwhelming stench of rotting carcasses, I began to appreciate the shear magnitude of the problem.  Tens of thousands of shark and ray heads lay baking in the sun.  Many were beyond recognition, but I managed to identify quite a few shortfin makos, blue sharks, some threshers and lots of soupfin sharks, plus a variety of stingrays, butterfly rays, guitarfish and even a few deepwater skates.

By-catch dumping ground.

The fifty meter-long ditch was just one of the many throughout Baja that would soon be bulldozed over and another dug to receive even more by-catch.  It was an incredibly depressing and gory scene, but like the live animals that were struggling in the nets, I felt that it needed to be recorded and shared to expose this fishery for what it really is:  when sharks and rays make up more than ninety-nine percent of the biomass recovered in a gillnet, this is clearly unregulated and unmonitored shark fishing under the guise of a halibut fishery. 
Gillnetting is both a global and local issue and needs to be addressed on both levels.  Hopefully, through education, retraining and legislation, fishermen like those in Baja can move toward more sustainable fishing methods or in some cases, completely alternative revenue sources such as ecotourism.  

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