THE BLOG
09/19/2014 10:17 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

Drift Gillnets Still Threaten California Marine Life

ShaneGross

Imagine being trapped 100 feet underwater in a massive net, struggling to reach the surface and unable to breathe. This fate is what awaits hundreds of marine mammals, including endangered sperm whales, and other ocean life in waters off of California. What's more, the government is allowing the drift gillnet swordfish fishery to continue operating in clear violation of federal law, without adequate protections in place for sperm whales and other species.

Fishermen use mile-long drift gillnets to catch swordfish and thresher sharks in waters off of California. Floating beneath the surface, these nets soak through the night, catching open-ocean animals that swim into them. Nicknamed "walls of death" in the conservation community, drift gillnets entangle roughly 100 marine mammals every year, along with sea turtles, thousands of sharks, and other economically important fish. In 2011, for every five swordfish the fishery landed, one marine mammal was killed and six fish -- including sharks and tunas -- were tossed overboard dead or dying.

Last year, Oceana discovered that as many as 16 sperm whales were injured and killed by the drift gillnet swordfish fishery in 2010, a number that prevents these whales from reaching or maintaining their optimum sustainable population. Oceana and our partners successfully pressured the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to issue a series of emergency regulations to protect sperm whales. Those regulations dictated that the fishery would close for the remainder of the season if the fleet caught just one sperm whale, and all drift gillnet vessels were required to have vessel monitoring systems to determine their precise fishing locations. If vessels fished in waters deeper than 2,000 meters, where sperm whales are commonly found, they were required to have an independent onboard observer to document what the fisherman caught.

Unfortunately, NMFS allowed these protections to expire on August 6, just days before the prime period for this fishery began. Without these protections, NMFS is letting the drift gillnet swordfish fishery operate without valid permits in clear violation of two federal laws: the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

NMFS is now preparing a new permit to allow continued drift gillnet fishing without sufficient sperm whale protections, and is justifying its action by manipulating its own bycatch data using a time span that makes the annual bycatch average appear smaller. The comment period on the proposed permit closes at the end of September. By the time the public weighs in and the agency takes final action to issue the permit, the fishing season will be well underway, or even over, and many marine mammals could be killed. Regardless of the outcome, this process fails to meet the spirit of the law.

In August, after the emergency regulations expired, Oceana, together with The Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network, announced our intent to sue the government, demanding that permanent protections be put in place for sperm whales and other marine creatures. The protections that NMFS now proposes are woefully inadequate, and are timed to the best advantage of the fishery.

Oregon fishermen are prohibited by their state from fishing with drift gillnets, and this gear is banned in waters off of Washington state. Drift gillnets are also banned on the Mediterranean Sea and across the international high seas. With cleaner, more selective fishing gear types available, and historic lows in fishery participation, there is no reason to continue using this unsustainable fishing gear. Oceana will continue our ongoing efforts to improve sperm whale protections in the drift gillnet swordfish fishery, and ultimately phase out this destructive fishing method while replacing drift gillnets with cleaner and more effective gear types.