Oceana urges that drift gillnets be phased out and replaced with cleaner gears that demonstrate responsible fishing and have been proven to be economically feasible such as harpoons.
In the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast, mile-long driftnets are used to capture swordfish and thresher sharks. But that’s not all they catch. When the nets are deployed in the evenings to soak overnight to ensnare their targeted catch, they also entangle large open ocean travelers like whales and sea turtles.
In the morning, when the nets are pulled from the water onto the fishing boats they contain disturbing and unacceptably high numbers of dead and dying animals—including whales, dolphins, seals, sea turtles, numerous shark species and many other ecologically and economically important fish—as bycatch. For example, in 2011 for every five swordfish landed one marine mammal was killed and six fish including sharks and tunas were tossed overboard dead or dying. The nets inflict such devastation to marine life that they have earned the name “Walls of Death.”
As a result of concerns over bycatch, both Washington and Oregon have prohibited their fishermen from using drift gillnets, leaving California as the only West Coast state still allowing this destructive fishing gear.
What Oceana Does
Preventing Death by Drift Gillnets
The Pacific Fishery Management Council is currently considering changes to the drift gillnet fishery operating off California. One such proposal would allow the use of driftnets in an area called the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area (PLCA) where these destructive nets are currently prohibited. The PLCA was established in 2001 specifically to protect endangered leatherback sea turtles from driftnets by prohibiting drift gillnet fishing in this area annually from August 15 through November 15. Oceana has been fighting to maintain these important protections since 2006. Additionally, due to a petition submitted by Oceana and our partners in 2007, critical habitat was designated by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in January 2012, and is the first permanent safe haven for leatherbacks designated in continental U.S. waters and is the largest area set aside to protect sea turtle habitat in the U.S. or its territories. Ironically, proposals to expand drift nets into these the leatherback conservation areas come at the same time a new study has been published by the Ecological Society of America, documenting the persistent and long-term decline of western Pacific leatherback sea turtles. The findings indicate this population of ancient sea turtles, predating the dinosaurs, will go extinct within 20 years if current trends continue.
Big Trouble for Marine Life
Additionally, NMFS recently discovered that loggerhead sea turtles are in bigger trouble than previously thought, and in 2012 uplisted their status from “threatened” to “endangered.” This is just one more reason why expanding a deadly fishery in the diverse ocean’s Blue Serengeti doesn’t make sense. NMFS has the legal responsibility to protect sea turtles, their habitat, and ensure the recovery of the species. This is a time when we should be pushing for sustainable fisheries, not expanding a fishery with inexcusably high bycatch of critically important marine species. Oceana is committed to protecting the ocean’s open ocean marine life like the magnificent sperm whale, the powerful Pacific white-sided dolphin, and the iconic California sea lion, which is why we are continuing to urge federal fishery managers to phase out drift gillnets altogether. The drift gillnet fishery is ultimately a declining industry, already phased out in many other coastal states across the west and east coast. History has shown that catching swordfish with harpoons is feasible, has virtually no bycatch, and results in a higher price per pound for catch at the dock. It is time to remove the “Walls of Death” from our California shoreline and move to cleaner fishing gears in order to ensure a vibrant, healthy, sustainable marine ecosystem and ocean-based economy into the future.