New Day Dawns for Whales, Sea Turtles, and Sustainable Swordfish Fishing off California’s Shores - Oceana USA

New Day Dawns for Whales, Sea Turtles, and Sustainable Swordfish Fishing off California’s Shores

First commercial permits for deep-set buoy gear represent future of fishery in California and will allow catch of swordfish without deadly risks to whales and sea turtles caused by other gear types

Press Release Date: September 14, 2023

Location: California


Jamie Karnik | email: | tel: Jamie Karnik

Tomorrow the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will issue the first 50 commercial fishing permits for the use of deep-set buoy gear to sustainably catch swordfish off the coast of California. In past years California swordfish were primarily caught using large-mesh drift gillnets, an indiscriminate form of fishing that entangles, injures, and kills whales, sea turtles, dolphins and other marine life.

Recent state and federal laws initiated a phase out of large-mesh drift gillnets, including a transition program to assist fishermen with the switch to deep-set buoy gear. The new permits for deep-set buoy gear represent the culmination of two decades of work by scientists, legislators, fishing groups, and Oceana and other conservation organizations to protect ocean life while maintaining a sustainable and profitable California swordfish fishery. 

“This is a banner day for whales, dolphins and sea turtles that swim off our shores, and a massive leap forward for sustainable swordfish fishing in California. A thriving and profitable swordfish fishery that does not threaten marine life is a win-win for everyone and represents one of the great success stories of fisheries management and ocean conservation not just here in California but in the nation,” said Dr. Geoff Shester, Oceana California Campaign Director and Senior Scientist. “It’s an example of how we can tackle the ocean’s biggest problems through collaboration with conservation groups, fishermen, the public and our state and federal leaders. We are so grateful for the efforts and leadership of Senators Dianne Feinstein and Shelley Moore Capito, Representatives Ted Lieu and Brian Fitzpatrick, California state Senator Ben Allen, California Governor Gavin Newsom, California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham, the California Fish and Game Commission, The California Ocean Protection Council, the Pfleger Institute for Environmental Research, fishermen who pioneered and developed the gear, NMFS, and so many others who helped lead us to this day.”

Deep-set buoy gear uses hooks set during the daytime to selectively catch swordfish at depth and is actively checked by fishermen, as opposed to large mesh drift gillnets left unattended for hours, often at night. Deep-set buoy gear not only greatly reduces the risk of accidental catching and killing of wildlife but also leads to higher quality swordfish that can be worth nearly twice as much as swordfish caught in drift gillnets. Fishermen who pioneered the development and testing of deep-set buoy gear and those fishermen who participated in the state drift gillnet transition program had the first opportunity to receive the new federal permits for deep-set buoy gear issued by NMFS.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to authorize deep-set buoy gear in 2019 following ten years of research and Exempted Fishing Permit testing of the gear, and NMFS subsequently concluded a regulatory process to authorize the gear. Last year, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program recommended deep-set buoy gear-caught swordfish as a “Best Choice”, which has helped garner higher prices and market access.

During the 2020-21 fishing year, fishermen using deep-set buoy gear under experimental permits landed eight times more swordfish than drift gillnets and did not catch a single marine mammal or other protected species. In contrast, fishermen using drift gillnets caught one marine mammal for every 12 swordfish landed. Drift gillnet fishers also discarded 14 non-targeted fish and 3 dead sharks for every swordfish caught.

In 2022 President Joe Biden signed the bi-partisan Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act (S. 906/H.R. 9179), led by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Representatives Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.) which initiated a five-year phase out of large-mesh drift gillnets in all U.S. ocean waters. Previously the state of California passed state legislation (SB 1017) that established a transition program whereby participating swordfish drift gillnet fishermen were financially compensated for surrendering nets and permits. Thanks to generous donations from the Marisla Foundation, Cinco Hermanos Fund, Offield Family Foundation, and Sue J. Gross Foundation, as well as several families and individuals, Oceana delivered more than one million dollars to the California transition program, triggering the phase out of state drift gillnet permits. The California state legislature and Ocean Protection Council contributed an additional $2.2 million to ensure full funding for all fishing participants. California-based Gray Whale Gin also supported the transition program and helped raise public awareness around the issues with drift gillnets. Fishermen turned their nets to Bureo, a net collection entity that recycles the nets into clothing, skateboards, and other products.

Drift gillnets were one of the nation’s highest bycatch fisheries, using mile-long, nearly invisible nets set out overnight to catch swordfish, but often entangling, injuring and killing more than 70 other species of marine life. According to federal data, more dolphins and porpoises were killed in the California drift gillnet fishery than all other observed U.S. West Coast and Alaska fisheries combined. Federal ocean waters off California and Oregon are the last place in the U.S. where large mesh drift gillnets were still allowed, and these swordfish drift gillnets will be completely phased out by 2027 as required by the new federal law.

Over the years, tens of thousands of U.S. residents have called for drift gillnets to be permanently pulled from ocean waters to protect wildlife while supporting more selective alternatives; and sportfishermen, businesses, chefs, and state and federal officials have fervently supported such action.

More information on drift gillnets and Oceana’s campaign to protect whales, sea turtles and other animals can be found here.