Drift Gillnets - Oceana USA

Drift Gillnets

End the “Walls of Death”

Oceana campaigns to phase out and prohibit wasteful swordfish drift gillnets off California while replacing them with clean fishing gear that provide a domestic swordfish fishery without harming marine mammals and sea turtles.


The Campaign

Mile-long drift gillnets used to catch 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.

Federal legislation to permanently end large-mesh (14 inch and greater) drift gillnet fishing gear in the United States passed Congress in the previous session but was vetoed by President Trump. In this session of Congress, the bill has again passed both the Senate (S. 273) and House (in the America COMPETES Act, H.R. 4521), but still needs to be passed in a common legislative vehicle and signed by President Biden. 

In October, the state of California  successfully completed a multi-year program that will protect marine mammals, sea turtles, sharks, and other important fish by removing roughly 50 miles of large-mesh drift gillnets from the ocean and transitioning the state’s swordfish fishery to more sustainable fishing gears. Oceana applauded the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for its thorough efforts in implementing this transition and called on Congress to pass federal legislation to permanently remove large-mesh drift gillnets from all U.S. waters.

In September 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 1017 that established a transition program whereby drift gillnet fishermen will be financially compensated for surrendering their nets and permits. And Oceana delivered $1 million to the state of California, matching the $1 million in state funds deposited by the California Ocean Protection Council. This means that all remaining state drift gillnet permits will be phased out, and fishermen have already begun turning in their nets. Fishermen participating in the transition program will be first in line for new federal permits to fish with deep-set buoy gear — cleaner fishing gear that successfully catches swordfish while avoiding deadly harm to marine mammals and sea turtles. This new, innovative gear was authorized by the Pacific Fishery Management Council in 2019.


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 entangling 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 (called bycatch) that are ultimately thrown back to the sea. A 2018 National Marine Fisheries Service study estimates that despite existing conservation measures, between 2001 and 2016 the California drift gillnet fishery captured 1,602 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. Much of this wasteful bycatch is tossed back into the ocean, dead or dying. A sample of disturbing photographs showing some animals entangled and killed by swordfish drift gillnets off California can be viewed here. On average, more than half of the total catch is tossed overboard. The nets inflict such devastation to marine life that they have earned the name “Walls of Death.” With the havoc this fishing gear inflicts on our ocean’s diverse marine life, Oceana and our partners successfully lobbied California 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 demonstrate that this fishing method is a responsible and economically viable alternative to using drift gillnets for catching swordfish. Read the latest published study on the profitability and effectiveness of deep-set buoy gear here. For more detailed information about the drift gillnet fishery click here. In 2017, Oceana filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the National Marine Fisheries Service’s withdrawal of a proposed rule to implement limits — called hard caps — on the numbers of protected species that can be injured or killed by swordfish drift gillnets. In October 2018, the federal court ruled in favor of Oceana, requiring the government to finalize the rule. Read the complaint here and the ruling here. In February 2020, in response to Oceana’s legal efforts, the government issued final regulations implementing hard caps to limit the deaths of sea turtles, dolphins and whales. But in the final rule, the government indicated its intent to weaken these protections  and the bycatch limits were later removed. The Pacific Fishery Management Council is now again considering implementing hard caps on the take of protected marine life.


Oceana and corporate sponsor Gray Whale Gin are working to ensure whales can safely make their migratory journeys without becoming entangled in deadly fishing nets. Together, we can make the ocean a safer place for whales.  

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


View the infographic here   

What Oceana Does

Ending “Walls of Death”

Oceana is committed to protecting marine life like magnificent sperm whales, powerful Pacific white-sided dolphins, and iconic Pacific leatherback sea turtles, and has passed California legislation to end swordfish drift gillnets once and for all. 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. The court ruled in Oceana’s favor in October 2018.

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 and California most recently passed legislation in 2018 to phase out the 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 with minimal bycatch, and that the catch sells for nearly double the price of drift gillnet-caught. Oceana is also working to prevent the re-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.

Learn More

California Drift Gillnet Aftermath Photos

Special Protections for Sea Turtles

Wildly Unforgiving

Experimental Buoy Gear Infographic

Providing Domestically Caught U.S. West Coast Swordfish


Exposing California's Dirty Secret