Congress Passes Legislation to Prohibit Destructive Swordfish Drift Gillnets in all U.S. Waters - Oceana USA

Congress Passes Legislation to Prohibit Destructive Swordfish Drift Gillnets in all U.S. Waters

Oceana Celebrates Long Overdue Protections for Whales, Sea Turtles

Press Release Date: December 23, 2022

Location: Washington, DC


Jamie Karnik | email: | tel: Jamie Karnik

Today, Congress passed the bipartisan Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act to phase out the use of deadly large-mesh drift gillnets for swordfish fishing in federal waters (3 to 200 miles from shore) and promote the adoption of more selective ways of fishing as part of the omnibus federal spending package. Oceana hails the legislation as long overdue protections for whales, dolphins, and sea turtles and commends Congressional leaders for protecting our ocean wildlife.

“Whales, sea turtles, and other animals will soon enjoy safer passage off our shores, and consumers will have confidence knowing that the swordfish they purchase does not come with deadly consequences,” said Susan Murray, Deputy Vice President for Oceana. “Large-mesh drift gillnets are essentially ‘Walls of Death’ that needlessly entangle, injure, and kill countless animals and there’s no place for them in our oceans, especially with proven and effective ways to catch swordfish without harming other marine life. We applaud the leadership of Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Shelley Moore-Capito (R- WV), and House sponsors Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), for their vision and diligent work to bring this across the finish line. This is a great example of how we can find practical solutions that create a more sustainable ocean future.”

Large-mesh drift gillnets are mile-long, nearly invisible nets set overnight to capture swordfish. Currently only in use off the coast of California, these nets entangle, injure, and kill thousands of other ocean animals each year including whales, dolphins, sea lions, endangered sea turtles, sharks, and other important fish species. More dolphins are harmed in the swordfish drift gillnet fishery than in all other U.S. West Coast and Alaska fisheries combined. Federal waters off California and Oregon are the last place in the United States where large-mesh drift gillnets are allowed to catch swordfish, and large-scale drift gillnets are prohibited internationally on the high seas and in many other countries.

Based on data from fishery observers, in the 2021-22 season, the swordfish drift gillnet fleet discarded 45% of the total catch as non-targeted species that were thrown overboard, the majority already dead or dying. The fishery caught one marine mammal for every three swordfish landed, discarded more than eight non-targeted fish for every swordfish landed, and killed one common dolphin for every four swordfish. Even with only a handful of boats fishing and low observer coverage (23%), there were two observed deaths of endangered humpback whales in the year 2021 alone.

In that same fishing season, deep-set buoy gear—a method of catching swordfish where a single line with baited hooks is connected to a floating buoy—caught four times more swordfish without harming marine mammals or other protected species.

“Fishing with deep-set buoy gear is a proven way to catch swordfish without harming other animals and leads to higher quality swordfish that bring better prices for fishermen,” said Geoff Shester, Oceana’s California campaign director and senior scientist. “Deep-set buoy gear is the future of swordfish fishing here in California and a win-win for fishermen and the oceans.” 

The state of California successfully completed a multi-year program to compensate swordfish drift gillnet fishermen for turning in their state drift gillnet permits and nets (which are destroyed and recycled into other products) and to incentivize the use of more selective gear to catch swordfish. As a result, roughly 50 miles of large-mesh drift gillnets have now been removed permanently from the ocean for recycling. The remaining federal permits will be phased out over the next five years.

According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Oceana estimates that transitioning the California swordfish fishery from drift gillnets to more sustainable methods of fishing will save at least 27 whales, 548 dolphins, 333 seals and sea lions, 24 sea turtles, and 70 seabirds over ten years.

For more information about Oceana’s campaign to protect whales, sea turtles, and other ocean animals by transitioning away from deadly large-mesh drift gillnets, please visit

Oceana is the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceana is rebuilding abundant and biodiverse oceans by winning science-based policies in countries that control one-third of the world’s wild fish catch. With more than 225 victories that stop overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, and the killing of threatened species like turtles and sharks, Oceana’s campaigns are delivering results. A restored ocean means that 1 billion people can enjoy a healthy seafood meal, every day, forever. Together, we can save the oceans and help feed the world. Visit to learn more.