California Shepherds Successful Transition to Cleaner Fishing Gears for Swordfish - Oceana USA

California Shepherds Successful Transition to Cleaner Fishing Gears for Swordfish

Oceana Celebrates Fifty Miles of Large-Mesh Drift Gillnets Permanently Removed from the Ocean and calls on Congress to finish the job

Press Release Date: November 8, 2022

Location: Sacramento, CA


Jamie Karnik | email: | tel: Jamie Karnik

The state of California has 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

“Oceana is proud to be part of a collaborative partnership and solution to help get destructive swordfish drift gillnets out of our seas, while providing opportunities for fishermen to switch to more sustainable gears to catch swordfish,” said Susan Murray, Oceana’s deputy vice president for the Pacific. “Removing fifty miles of nets from ocean waters will protect countless whales, sea turtles, dolphins, and other sea life from needless suffering and death. Now we urge Congress to finish the job at the federal level.”

Each large-mesh drift gillnet stretches more than a mile, equaling the length of the Golden Gate Bridge. 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.

Based on data from fishery observers, 45% of the total drift gillnet catch was discarded in the 2021-22 season. The fishery caught 1 marine mammal for every 3 swordfish landed, discarded more than 8 non targeted fish for every 1 swordfish landed, and killed 1 common dolphin for every 4 swordfish. Even with low observer coverage (23%), there were two observed catches of endangered humpback whales in the year 2021 alone.

In 2018, following campaigning by Oceana and allies, California passed a law — SB 1017 — that established a transition program to compensate swordfish drift gillnet fishermen for turning in their permits and nets (which are destroyed and recycled into other products) and to incentivize the use of more selective gear to catch swordfish. Oceana donors raised more than $1 million to match the $1 million in state funds provided by the California Ocean Protection Council, which in turn triggered California’s four-year phaseout period for all remaining state swordfish drift gillnet permits by January 31, 2024. The California legislature then allocated additional funds to ensure payments to all willing participants in the transition program. To participate in the transition program, California drift gillnet fishermen had to complete the necessary steps by October 28, 2022.

With the end of the state program, California looks to the federal government to complete the transition away from large mesh drift gillnets by phasing out all remaining federal permits. Those California fishermen that did not participate in the state transition program can still use drift gillnets with the appropriate federal permit, until Congress acts to permanently end the use of large-mesh drift gillnets in U.S. waters.  

A total of 38 drift gillnet fishermen participated in the program, including 23 fishermen that actively fished in the five years preceding the program. This permanently removed roughly 50 miles and 54 tons of drift gillnets from the ocean. Those nets will be destroyed and recycled into other products.

Completion of the California drift gillnet transition program enables fishermen to profitably catch seafood in a way that does not harm other ocean animals, particularly with the use of deep-set buoy gear.

“This innovative transition program is helping fishermen switch to alternate ways to fish that will not only provide them with higher prices for their catch, but also will give consumers the confidence that their seafood purchase isn’t fraught with deadly consequences,” said Geoff Shester, Oceana’s California campaign director.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program recently added U.S. West Coast swordfish caught with harpoons and deep-set buoy gear to its “Green List.” The “best choice” rating will influence more than 25,000 restaurants, stores, and distributors that are committed to using Seafood Watch ratings to guide purchasing and menu choices, a significant step in supporting clean California swordfish fisheries.

For more information about Oceana’s campaign to transition away from drift gillnets, please visit