In the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast, mile-long drift gillnets are used to capture swordfish and thresher sharks. But that’s not all they catch. These nets are deployed at dusk and left to hang 200 feet below the ocean’s surface for up to 12 hours. At the same time the nets ensnare their targeted catch, they also entangle large open ocean travelers like whales, dolphins, sharks, and sea turtles.

In the morning, when the nets are pulled from the water onto the fishing boats, they hold exceptionally high numbers of dead and dying animals that are ultimately thrown back to the sea (called bycatch). A 2017 National Marine Fisheries Service study estimates that despite existing conservation measures, between 2001 and 2015 the California drift gillnet fishery captured 1,460 protected marine species including large whales, sea turtles, dolphins, seabirds, seals and sea lions. During this time the fishery has also captured tens of thousands of non-target fish including rare sharks, rays, marlin and ocean sunfish. Many of these animals are tossed back dead or dying.

A sample of disturbing photographs highlighting some of the species entangled and killed by swordfish drift gillnets off California can be viewed here. On average 61 percent of the total catch (individuals, not weight) is tossed overboard. The nets inflict such devastation to marine life that they have earned the name “Walls of Death.”

Oceana has been fighting since 2006 to protect open ocean marine life from the perils of these dangerous nets. With the havoc this fishing gear is inflicting on our ocean’s diverse marine life, Oceana urges decision makers to phase out and prohibit swordfish drift gillnets and replace them with cleaner gears that can selectively target swordfish such as deep-set buoy gear. Commercial and experimental deep-set buoy gear trials off California have demonstrated that this fishing method is a responsible and economically feasible alternative to using drift gillnets for catching swordfish.

For more detailed information about the drift gillnet fishery click here.

Oceana has filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the National Marine Fisheries Service's withdrawal of a proposed rule to implement limits on the numbers of protected species that can be injured or killed by swordfish drift gillnets. Read the complaint here.

Kate Mara alongside Oceana is speaking up to save whales and get drift gillnets out of the water. Click here to hear from Kate.