Federal Judge Rules to Protect Whales, Sea Turtles From Dangers of Drift Gillnets - Oceana USA

Federal Judge Rules to Protect Whales, Sea Turtles From Dangers of Drift Gillnets

Judge R. Gary Klausner Rules in Favor of Oceana, Telling NMFS It May Not Skirt the Nation’s Fisheries Management Law

Press Release Date: October 26, 2018

Location: Los Angeles, CA


Dustin Cranor, APR | email: dcranor@oceana.org | tel: 954.348.1314


A Federal judge has ruled in favor of Oceana in a lawsuit challenging the National Marine Fisheries Service’s decision to withdraw a proposed rule to place strict limits on the number of protected species that can be killed or injured in the California-based swordfish drift gillnet fishery.

“NMFS’s decision to withdraw this important protection for vulnerable marine wildlife was irresponsible and illegal,” said Mariel Combs, Oceana’s Senior Pacific Counsel. “The court’s ruling protects whales, sea turtles, and dolphins and affirms the importance of public process and the role of the Pacific Fishery Management Council in regulating West Coast fisheries.”  

The California drift gillnet fishery, which uses mile-long nets to catch swordfish and thresher sharks, is one of the nation’s dirtiest fisheries and has long been controversial. Drift gillnets kill large numbers of marine mammals each year, including more dolphins and porpoises than all other observed west coast and Alaska fisheries combined. There are approximately 20 vessels operating in the fishery, which discarded more than 60% of its total catch between 2004 and 2017. 

California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed Senate Bill 1017, which will phase out the use of large-mesh drift gillnet fishing for swordfish in California waters over four years and incentivize the use of cleaner fishing gear to reduce the incidental catch of marine wildlife.

“Any fishery that throws away more than it keeps needs to change, especially a fishery that is killing some of the world’s most remarkable—and most endangered—marine species,” said Dr. Geoff Shester, California Campaign Director and Senior Scientist for Oceana. “The state of California and the public agree—drift gillnets are an unnecessary and unsustainable way to catch swordfish, and it’s long past time to get these nets out of the water and move to cleaner and better ways to catch fish.”

After a multi-year public process involving fishermen, state wildlife departments, environmental groups and California residents, the Pacific Fishery Management Council approved a new rule establishing strict limits for the fishery on the number of deaths permitted for nine species: fin, humpback and sperm whales; leatherback, loggerhead, olive ridley and green sea turtles; short-fin pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins.

These high-priority species, many of which are threatened or endangered, all face the risk of entanglement in drift gillnets. Under the proposed rule, the fishery would be required to shut down for the remainder of any two-year period if limits on any individual species were reached.

The proposed rule would provide indirect benefits such as the incentives to change behavior in the fleet to avoid unintentional catch of other non-targeted ecologically, recreationally and commercially valuable species, and to switch to cleaner fishing methods such as deep-set buoy gear or harpoon gear.

The National Marine Fisheries Service originally published the proposed rule in October of 2016. In June of 2017, under the new Trump administration, the agency abruptly reversed course and withdrew the rule, which prompted Oceana’s lawsuit. The state of Washington filed an amicus brief with the court in support of the lawsuit, arguing that NMFS did not follow the law when it withdrew the proposed rule.

Judge Klausner’s decision sends the proposed regulations back to the agency and orders NMFS to either finalize the rule as proposed or consult with the Council on any revisions to the rule.

Oceana is represented by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP.

For more information about swordfish drift gillnets and gear alternatives visit www.oceana.org/stopthenets