On November 18, 2013, our team in the Pacific sent a letter to NOAA Fisheries requesting photos of marine life drowned in drift gillnets off the coast of California. We already knew that each year over a hundred marine mammals are killed by drift gillnets, mile-long fishing nets set below the water’s surface to catch swordfish and thresher sharks in the area. Animals big and small—whales, dolphins, sea turtles, sea lions—are caught in these walls of mesh and often drown, and Oceana wanted to bring forward any photographic proof of gillnets’ damage.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, we asked NOAA to provide pictures, as the agency collects images to identify species through a fisheries observer program. The agency then sent us hundreds of images in the first installment of their response, and there may be more as the search continues.
These pictures are graphic and harsh, but they need to be shared and seen so that we can understand the full scope of what this deadly fishing practice is doing to marine life off California. Mile-long drift gillnets are left out to soak overnight in the water, and many of the turtles, dolphins, whales and other animals that swim near them become roped in with the daily catch. Entangled, unable to move or surface for air to breathe, the mesh cutting into their flesh, they eventually drown. Other fish and mammals that are released, may appear outwardly fine, but the gillnets can cause internal bleeding and they die soon after release.
Right now, drift gillnets kill more documented marine mammals and sea turtles than all other West Coast human activities combined. In 2011, for every five swordfish landed by boats using drift gillnets, one marine mammal was killed and six unwanted fish were tossed back dead or dying. Among those killed are endangered animals like sperm whales and sea turtles, as well as other non-target species of sharks, marlin, and more.
Oceana is sponsoring bill AB 2019, introduced by California Assemblymember Paul Fong, to ban these nets in favor of cleaner gear and safer, more sustainable fishing practices. Tell California lawmakers to support the bill to end drift gillnetting in California waters.
View more images of the loss of sea life inflicted by drift gillnetting