Big Protections for Endangered Whales, Turtles, and Sharks: One Step Closer to a Clean U.S. West Coast Swordfish Fishery - Oceana USA
Home / Blog / Big Protections for Endangered Whales, Turtles, and Sharks: One Step Closer to a Clean U.S. West Coast Swordfish Fishery

October 1, 2015

Big Protections for Endangered Whales, Turtles, and Sharks: One Step Closer to a Clean U.S. West Coast Swordfish Fishery

September was a monumental month for some of the U.S. West Coast’s most endangered whales and sea turtles. In a landmark decision, the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council (“Council”) adopted hard limits on the number of endangered marine mammals and sea turtles that can be injured or killed in the drift gillnet fishery that targets swordfish off California. If any of the limits are reached, for any one of nine marine mammal and sea turtle species, the fishery will be shut down for the remainder of the fishing season, and possibly the entire next season. To monitor the bycatch, federal managers also committed to a comprehensive monitoring plan for the fishery.

Oceana has been pushing for these safeguards with the help of California legislative members, Congressional representatives, and our dedicated Oceana supporters. California Senators Feinstein and Boxer, and Oregon Senator Wyden sent the Council a letter referring to drift gillnets as “a practice that continues to kill or seriously injure endangered and protected species that are of great national and ecological significance.”  The letter asked the Council to “act quickly to develop a comprehensive plan that includes not just enforceable limits on bycatch in the interim, but a concrete strategy for transitioning away from drift gillnets in the long-run.”  Our partnerships with other conservation and recreational fishing organizations were critical to this victory. Over 58,000 Oceana supporters signed petitions and letters demanding change, presenting overwhelming support in the public comments to the Council.  Our collective voices really made a difference to secure new protections for amazing ocean wildlife. Thank you!

Oceana has been working since 2006 to phase out and prohibit the use of drift gillnets, and to prevent the introduction of pelagic longlines off the U.S. West Coast.  A lot of this has meant playing defense against multiple proposals to expand the use of swordfish drift gillnets and longlines. While both of these gear types can catch swordfish, they also kill dozens of other species that are caught as bycatch, including whales, dolphins, sea turtles, rare sharks and rays. Importantly, there are other gear types that can be used to selectively target swordfish without all of the waste.

Last year, Oceana released a national bycatch report, called Wasted Catch: Unsolved Problems in U.S. Fisheries, which identified the California swordfish drift gillnet fishery among the “dirtiest” bycatch fisheries in the nation. This fishery throws away 64 percent of all animals caught including seven endangered species of whales and sea turtles, and dozens of sensitive and rare sharks, recreational fish, bluefin tuna, and molas (ocean sunfish).  Drift gillnets — stretching a mile in length and 200 feet below the ocean’s surface — target swordfish and thresher sharks in federal ocean waters (3-200 miles) off California. Yet they create a deadly trap for all ocean wildlife that swims in their path. Marine mammals feeding off the coast of California are regularly ensnared in these invisible nets and they drown when they are not able to surface for air. 

How do Hard Caps Work?

The Council recommended limits, called “hard caps”, to control the number of 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 injured or killed by swordfish drift gillnets.  If a hard cap is reached or exceeded for any one of these species over a two-year period, the fishery will be closed for the remainder of that two-year period.

For example, the two-year observed hard cap for humpback whales is two whales. Therefore, if federal onboard observers document the fishery killing or injuring two humpback whales over a two year period, the entire drift gillnet fishery will close for the remainder of that two year period. The Council also voted to require 30 percent of all drift gillnet fishing trips to carry an onboard observer, until 2018, when 100 percent monitoring will be required. The Council indicated that some of this monitoring could be in the form of electronic video monitoring systems.

A major concern with this swordfish drift gillnet fishery is that it catches critically endangered sea turtles, which have been listed as Endangered since 1973 and whose population has declined over 85 percent since it was listed. A new study by scientists at NOAA determined that the western Pacific leatherback sea turtle population (the population that visits U.S. West Coast waters in the summer and fall to feed on jellyfish) is in such dire condition that no more than one leatherback every five years should be killed off the U.S. West Coast. Additionally, other nations must take equivalent protections if we are to prevent further delaying this population’s recovery. Earlier this year, NOAA included Pacific leatherback sea turtles in its “Species in the Spotlight”, defined as the eight endangered species protected by NOAA that are among the most at risk of extinction.

This slideshow features more information about each of the nine amazing species that will receive additional protections with new hard caps and the number of animals for each species that can be injured or killed before triggering a fishery closure:


These hard caps are slated to go into effect next year in time for the beginning of the next fishing season, which commences May 1, 2016 and goes through January 2017. This would effectively implement Oceana’s “Count, Cap, and Control” approach for reducing bycatch in one of the dirtiest fisheries in the United States.  Notably, National Marine Fisheries Service representative Bob Turner supported this action at the Council referring to the “social value” of whales and dolphins as evidenced by wide public comments from residents up and down the West Coast. The decision also reflects a renewed focus and more holistic view of bycatch by the federal government, which recently developed a National Bycatch Strategy.   

The Council also voted to establish a new management system to track and reduce bycatch of other marine mammals, sharks and manta rays, plus recreationally important bill fish species that are injured and killed in swordfish drift gillnets.  In particular, the Council set measures for five species of sharks and rays that were recently added to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but currently have no limits on how many can be accidentally caught in fishing nets. 

If the fishery does not reduce its bycatch to meet objectives set for these species, the Council indicated it would consider additional management actions in the future for these ocean animals.

This slideshow features more information about the species that will have bycatch objectives:

Last, in recognition of the high rates of discarded catch in drift gillnets, the Council also set a standard that the fishery must keep at least 70 percent of all animals killed or injured by these nets. If the fishery cannot meet these standards, the Council will consider imposing additional regulations to achieve these objectives.

These actions bring California one step closer toward ultimately phasing out drift gillnets in place of cleaner, more sustainable gears to target swordfish in a way that is much safer for ocean wildlife. The hard caps will not only safeguar