In the eerie depths off the Southern California coast, in milelong nets extending 100 feet to the sea bottom, seals, dolphins and other mammals lie motionless, ensnared like insects in a great spider's web.
Such scenes are both the heart and the motivation of a 30-minute documentary, "An Incidental Kill," by David R. Weiss, a Manhattan Beach film maker. The film describes the environmental impact of the gill nets used by the commercial fishing industry and the so-called "incidental kills" of marine mammals caught in them.
The documentary, which premiered Sept. 5 at San Diego's Underwater Film Festival, represents a breakthrough for Weiss, 32. The owner of a television production company that rents out camera and sound equipment, he says he struggled four years to finance and film his documentary, facing both money problems and physical dangers along the way.
"While the film was in production, it was like I couldn't get anybody on the telephone," Weiss said, referring to efforts to get financing from public television stations.
2 Stations Interested
But now that the project is done, it is drawing attention. Programming executives from KCET public television in Los Angeles and KTBS in San Diego say they are interested in broadcasting the film.
"The initial word is that it is quite good," said Charles Impaglia, KCET's director of broadcasting.
"I thought it was brilliant," said Gloria Penner, director of television programming development for KTBS. "He was a very controlled documentarian. He stayed true to the issue and true to himself."
Apart from selling his product, Weiss faced the logistical difficulties of filming aboard boats and underwater. During a typical shoot, Weiss would hire a boat and a crew of three who would work for below union-scale wages because of their interest in the project. Sometimes they would set out 50 miles to sea to find fishing boats, which often stay out for several weeks in search of halibut, white sea bass, yellowtail, barracuda, thresher shark and swordfish.
Weiss described diving at night along the nets, which are often attached to the fishing boats and trawled overnight, as "one of the most harrowing experiences I've ever faced."
"After the project was over and we discussed what we had done, we all admitted that we had been very frightened all the time that we were down there," Weiss said. "Not just of sharks, but of the fact that when you are diving in the open ocean, should anything go wrong there is no recourse; you are lost."
"David is not a very experienced diver," said Howard Hall, director of underwater photography for the film, "but he did some wild diving out there, sometimes many miles out to sea with only a flashlight." The fishermen allowed Weiss and his crew to film their activities on condition that he give a balanced portrait of gill net fishing.
"We were filming somewhat hostile witnesses, if you will, by virtue of the fact that they really don't want us to see what they're doing," Weiss said. "They're not breaking the law; they're doing what is allowed by law, but they're doing stuff that they know the public would never understand."
Response From Industry
A fishing industry spokesman, however, said Weiss is exaggerating the problem.
Calling the number of incidental kills "minimal," Tony West, vice president of the California Gillnetters Assn., said the problem has been "pumped up" and "blown way out of proportion."
"I'm the first to say that one dead whale is one too many," said West, who three years ago allowed Weiss to film aboard his 48-foot fishing boat Loretta Marie. "However, these things do occur."
Drift gill nets of the type featured in Weiss' film kill about 2,000 sea lions and harbor seals, 225 dolphins and porpoises and 10 gray whales a year, according to Dana Seagars, wildlife biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service. This month, the service warned California fishermen that they were about to exceed the 1986 annual limit of 20,500 dolphin killed by all types of fishing in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Region, extending from Chile to just north of San Francisco.
According to Nello Castagnola, president of the California Gillnetters Assn., the state Department of Fish and Game has issued about 1,000 licenses to use gill nets, but only about 200 boats are equipped with them. He said that he cannot estimate how many fish are taken with gill nets but that they represent a large percentage of the fresh fish sold in California.
Dispute Over Monitoring
Weiss says policing fishermen is the problem. "There just hasn't been enough monitoring . . . to allow perspective on this issue," he said.
The Department of Fish and Game disputed Weiss' assertion.
"My impression is that our monitoring is very high," said Rick Klingbeil, marine resources supervisor with the department. "The department is very aware of this fishery and possible problems concerning incidental catches of non-targeted species."