Bat ray entangled and killed in halibut fishing net,
with the fishing vessel in the background.
Soupfin shark entangled and killed by a halibut fishing net
Loads of bycatch for one halibut
Bycatch dumping ground
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 inshore habitats that are also important hunting and breeding grounds for many endemic shark and ray species.
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 bycatch. 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. Hidden within all that bycatch (that would not even cover fuel for the day) was a single halibut, the intended catch.
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.
The fifty meter-long ditch was just one of many throughout Baja that would soon be bulldozed over and another dug to receive even more bycatch. 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.
Andy Murch is a photojournalist specializing in rare and endangered sharks and rays. His images are frequently used by NGOs to support marine conservation initiatives. Murch's website Elasmodiver.com is one of the most comprehensive resources for shark and ray information on the internet. Andy is also the founder of BigFishExpeditions.com – an adventure travel company that puts divers in the water with the ocean's largest animals. Murch is currently based on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.