The nutrient-rich waters off California teem with some of the world’s most iconic, brilliant marine life: humpback whales, leatherback sea turtles, dolphins, sea lions, ocean sunfish, large sharks, marlin and many more. But these economically and ecologically important creatures continue to be threatened by the California-based drift gillnet fishery, which kills about 100 marine mammals per year in the quest for swordfish.
Recently, actress and ocean advocate Kate Mara teamed up with Oceana in a public service announcement (PSA) to raise awareness about the impacts of drift gillnets on marine wildlife. The PSA comes in advance of key decisions next month by the Pacific Fishery Management Council (“Council”), one of eight regional fishery management councils in the U.S., on the future management of the West Coast swordfish fishery.
“A mile-wide and a hundred-feet-deep, drift gillnets are virtually invisible and catch ocean wildlife indiscriminately. While these nets are meant to capture swordfish, they snare — and regularly kill — sharks, whales, sea turtles and many other marine animals that swim in its path,” says Mara. “In fact, the drift gillnet fishery often discards 60 percent of animals caught in these nets!”
Oceana is actively campaigning to phase out and prohibit the use of drift gillnets, and ultimately replace them with cleaner gears. Last year, Oceana’s campaign reached a critical point when the Council committed to transitioning the fishery to cleaner fishing gears. At its upcoming June meeting, the Council will discuss implementing new protections for endangered fin, humpback and sperm whales, short-fin pilot whales, and common bottlenose dolphins, as well as for endangered leatherback, loggerhead, olive ridley and green sea turtles. The sought-after protections would place “hard caps” on the number of these species that can be caught as bycatch before the fishery shuts down for the remainder of the fishing season.
While these measures would offer an interim reprieve to these iconic marine mammals, Oceana continues to call upon the fishery Council to prohibit this dirty gear type and replace it with more selective fishing gear, like harpoons and experimental buoy gear. Getting rid of these dirty drift gillnets is essential for the long-term health and biodiversity of the California Current ecosystem.
Even though the Council is considering hard caps that limit the take of whales, dolphins and sea turtles, they’re also entertaining a proposal to allow drift gillnets back into the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area — a move that would undermine progress for sea turtle conservation. This conservation area closes ocean waters from Monterey, California to Lincoln City, Oregon during the time endangered leatherback sea turtles are feeding and migrating off the coast. The Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area has been off limits to drift gillnets since 2001 and it has significantly reduced observed sea turtle entanglement. Additionally, the Council is considering whether to reintroduce harmful pelagic longlines into U.S. West Coast waters, which have been banned for decades due to high levels of bycatch.
“We are committed to ridding the California Current Ecosystem of harmful drift gillnets and keeping pelagic longlines from coming back,” said Geoff Shester, California campaign director at Oceana. “The sooner these nets are off the water, the faster we can revitalize a sustainable swordfish fishery that is safe for California’s treasured ocean wildlife.”
Drift gillnets, which stretch over a mile in length and hover one hundred feet below the water’s surface, are deployed from dusk until dawn. Fishermen use these mesh nets to capture swordfish and thresher sharks. But these drift gillnets also ensnare and kill an astonishing and unacceptably high amount of other marine life that swims in its path — earning them the nickname of “walls of death” by those in the conservation community. According to data from the National Marine Fisheries Service, these nets have killed over 650 marine mammals over the past seven years, as these animals migrate, breed and feed throughout the nutrient-rich waters off the U.S. West Coast.
Watch Kate Mara’s PSA below and help us get the nets off the water by signing Oceana’s petition urging the PFMC to protect iconic marine wildlife from these dangerous nets. You can learn more about Oceana’s campaign to eliminate drift gillnets from California waters here.