The Beacon

Drift Gillnets Kept at Bay . . . For Now

A frequent victim of drift gillnets © Jose Alejandro Alvarez/Marine Photobank

We can breathe a momentary sigh of relief. This Monday, the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously to maintain protections off California and Oregon for the critically endangered population of Pacific leatherback sea turtles. However, in 2014 these federal fishery managers will consider another proposal for allowing driftnets into sea turtle habitat southwest of Monterey, California.

At the meeting a few days ago in Tacoma, Washington, the Council considered a full array of proposals to expand the use of drift gillnets off California and Oregon and into an area currently designated to protect Pacific leatherback sea turtles. But Oceana—with the help of our partners, and support of our avid Wavemakers—successfully thwarted those efforts by presenting new science on the decline of leatherback sea turtles; by revealing scientific data showing massive wasteful bycatch of large whales, dolphins, sharks, and other fish by the drift gillnet fishery; and by bringing forward the public uproar over the proposed expansion of the driftnet fishery into a currently protected area.

Mile-long drift nets hang like invisible curtains in the water column to catch swordfish, but they unselectively entangle other marine life traversing through the open ocean. To numerically paint the portrait of this wasteful fishery, for every five swordfish caught in 2011, one marine mammal was killed and six fish were tossed back dead. When it comes to whales, this fishery takes many species, but one of particular concern is the sperm whale. The largest of the toothed whales, sperm whales have the largest brain of any animal and it is estimated that 16 of these amazing endangered whales were taken in the drift gillnet fishery in 2010 alone.

This far exceeds the allowable take of this endangered species under the federal Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection Acts. These nets are also responsible for discarding 27 common molas, fondly called ocean sunfish, for every swordfish caught in the 2010-2011 fishing season. Drift gillnets are also particularly devastating to sharks of many species. In summary, this bycatch is atrocious especially given that cleaner fishing gears are available which still allow for a viable fishery.  

At the meeting this week, Oceana urged the Council to phase out and close the drift gillnet swordfish fishery, and to replace it with cleaner gears like harpoons. Harpoons were the predominant method of catching swordfish up to 1979, before drift gillnets became an official legal gear for catching swordfish off California in 1980. Additionally, we proposed other experimental gears—like buoy gear—which show promise for successfully catching swordfish without disturbingly high bycatch rates.

While we celebrate the fact that protected areas for the ocean’s largest sea turtle will remain in place for now there is more work to be done. The Council is still considering re-opening the southern portion of the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area to deadly drift gillnets next year. We will continue to urge the Council and the State of California to phase out drift gillnets and replace them with cleaner gears.

Thank you to the more than 36,000 of you who signed the letter asking the Council to phase out drift gillnets and a special acknowledgement to our Wavemakers from the greater Seattle/Tacoma area who testified to the Council in person over the weekend urging them to protect our valuable ocean ecosystem by ridding our waters of these deadly nets.


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