Mile-long drift gillnets used to target swordfish off California entangle, injure, and kill large ocean animals including whales, dolphins, seals, sea turtles, numerous shark species and many other ecologically and economically important fish.
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.
What Oceana Does
Ending “Walls of Death”
Action to count, cap, and control bycatch in the swordfish drift gillnet fishery is necessary while a plan to transition to cleaner gear types is put in place. Oceana is committed to protecting marine life like magnificent sperm whales, powerful Pacific white-sided dolphins, and iconic California sea lions, which is why we continue to urge state and federal fishery managers to phase out swordfish drift gillnets. The Pacific Fishery Management Council—a 14-member advisory body—voted at its September 2015 meeting to place the first ever limits, called hard caps, on the numbers of nine protected species that can be injured or killed by swordfish drift gillnets. The hard caps rule would have applied to endangered fin, humpback, and sperm whales; short-fin pilot whales, and common bottlenose dolphins; as well as endangered leatherback, loggerhead, olive ridley, and green sea turtles, and would have required an immediate closure of the fishery if a hard cap were met or exceeded for any of these species. The National Marine Fisheries Service issued a proposed rule to implement the caps in October 2016. In an unprecedented move, however, the Fisheries Service withdrew the proposed rule on June 12, 2017. On July 12, 2017, Oceana filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the withdrawal of the rule. Additionally, in 2015, the Council recommended the Fisheries Service require 100 percent monitoring of drift gillnet vessels so that all catch and bycatch is counted on every trip. The agency recently decided not to move forward with a rule to implement this recommendation, however, Oceana will continue to fight for this action which is necessary to get an accurate documentation of all animals killed in the fishery.
Safeguarding Marine Life while Ensuring Domestic Fisheries
Large-mesh drift gillnet fisheries targeting swordfish have been completely phased out in all other coastal states and U.S. waters, as well as all international waters, the entire Mediterranean Sea, and waters off Russia and many other countries. 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. History has shown that catching swordfish with harpoons is feasible, has virtually no bycatch, and earns a substantially higher price per pound for catch at the dock. Commercial trials with deep-set buoy gear demonstrate this new, innovative gear can profitably catch swordfish which sell for nearly double the price of drift gillnet-caught swordfish with minimal bycatch, avoiding harm to protected marine species. It is time to remove the “Walls of Death” from our California coast and move to more responsible, selective fishing gears in order to ensure a vibrant, healthy, sustainable marine ecosystem and ocean-based economy into the future. Oceana is also working to prevent the introduction of harmful pelagic longlines off California, another destructive, high-bycatch fishing method that has been banned off California to protect marine life and recreational fisheries.