THE BLOG

Ocean Waters Off California Must Be Free of Drift Gillnets

05/20/2015 12:08 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016
NOAA, courtesy of Oceana

Every year, hundreds of iconic marine animals -- think endangered sperm whales and massive leatherback sea turtles -- die an incredibly slow and unnecessary death: drowning in mile-long nets submerged 100 feet under the ocean's surface. These nets, called drift gillnets, are set in the Pacific Ocean waters off California to capture swordfish and thresher sharks, but they're highly unselective. Deployed from about dusk until dawn, these nets -- nicknamed "walls of death"-- catch and often kill sharks, whales, sea turtles and many other marine animals that swim in their path.

Next month, the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC), one of eight regional fishery management councils in the U.S., is expected to discuss protections for some of California's most ecologically important wildlife taken in these dangerous nets. If implemented, the PFMC will establish "hard caps" on the numbers of whales, dolphins and sea turtles that can be taken as bycatch in the California drift gillnet swordfish fishery. That means that if those caps are reached, the fishery will shut down for the remainder of the fishing season. Caps are being considered for multiple species, including endangered fin, humpback and sperm whales, short-fin pilot whales, common bottlenose dolphins and endangered leatherback, loggerhead, olive ridley and green sea turtles.

Drift gillnets are truly one of the most wasteful fishing gear types. On average, fishermen using these nets throw away about 60 percent of their catch, according to data collected by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) observers. Nearly 60 different species of marine life are known to be caught or drowned in these nets, including whales, dolphins, sharks, sea turtles, sea lions and more. In fact, they are so wasteful that these nets are banned in the Mediterranean Sea, on the high seas, and off Washington state. Additionally, the State of Oregon prohibits its fishermen from using these deadly nets -- leaving California as the only West Coast state still allowing fishermen to use them.

Oceana is calling on the Council and National Marine Fisheries Service to prohibit this dirty gear off the U.S. West Coast and replace it with demonstrated clean fishing methods, like harpoons. Last year, Oceana reached a critical point in its campaign when the PFMC committed to transitioning to a suite of cleaner fishing methods as well as implementing emergency protections for sperm whales.

This progress was the direct result of campaigning by Oceana and its allies -- but more needs to be done. The Council must now establish hard caps on the take of marine mammals and sea turtles, as an interim step toward the ultimate prohibition of this dirty gear type. To identify a path forward toward solutions, Oceana is supporting expanded experiments with deep-set buoy gear, which is a promising, innovative new method to sustainably catch swordfish with minimal levels of bycatch.

Oceana has also engaged California lawmakers and members of Congress to stand against drift gillnets. Twice now, California legislative members have sent letters to the Council expressing concern over the high bycatch in this fishery and their support for a transition plan to end the use of drift gillnets off California. Similarly, the Council received a letter from members of the U.S. House of Representatives and a letter from members of the U.S. Senate in late 2014 stating that current levels of bycatch are unacceptably high and supporting a transition away from drift gillnets.

Thousands of ocean activists have joined Oceana in expressing their opposition to drift gillnets, but we still need your help. Please join Oceana by watching our new public service announcement (PSA), or by signing a petition to send a clear message to the PFMC that it is time for the Council to commit to using cleaner, safer swordfish fishing gear types off California. By doing so, the Council can help ensure that California marine ecosystems remain healthy and vibrant for generations to come.