Here’s a very simple way to protect marine life—keep drift gillnets out of California waters. Fishermen use this fishing gear to target swordfish and thresher sharks, but they also catch and kill dozens of other important marine species. In 2011, for every five swordfish the fishery landed, one marine mammal was killed and six fish—including sharks and tunas—were tossed overboard dead or dying.
Last week, the Pacific Fishery Management Council rejected a proposal to expand the use of drift gillnets off California. The decision was paired with a request to extend emergency regulations to protect sperm whales from entrapment in drift gillnets until permanent protections go into effect. The meeting in Sacramento drew unusually high numbers of public comments, including more than 40,000 written comments from Oceana supporters alone. It's a step in the right direction when it comes to getting the destructive form of fishing gear out of California waters.
On November 18, 2013, our team in the Pacific sent a letter to NOAA Fisheries requesting photos of marine life drowned in drift gillnets off the coast of California. We already knew that each year over a hundred marine mammals are killed by drift gillnets, mile-long fishing nets set below the water’s surface to catch swordfish and thresher sharks in the area. Animals big and small—whales, dolphins, sea turtles, sea lions—are caught in these walls of mesh and often drown, and Oceana wanted to bring forward any photographic proof of gillnets’ damage.
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.
An endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle swims through the cold, nutrient-rich waters off California where it has made an impressive journey from its nesting beaches in Indonesia to feed on jellyfish. But, it encounters an unwelcome surprise, a mile long drift net in which its flipper becomes entangled.
Because this net sits overnight in the water column to catch its targeted commercial species, swordfish and thresher sharks, this net will not be pulled up until the following morning. In the meantime, the sea turtle is unable to surface for air and drowns. The drift gillnet fishery takes, on average, 138 marine mammals per year including sperm whales, humpback whales, pilot whales, minke whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions—not to mention thousands of sharks and other fish. The vast majority of those animals are dumped back into the ocean, dead or injured.
Due to concerns over bycatch resulting from the use of drift gillnets, Washington and Oregon have prohibited fishermen in their state from using these destructive nets off their coast. This leaves California as the only west coast state still allowing this deadly gear.