CEO Note: California funding protects whales, dolphins, sea turtles from deadly drift gillnets | Oceana
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July 13, 2021

CEO Note: California funding protects whales, dolphins, sea turtles from deadly drift gillnets

Credit: Chase Dekker


Last month, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a new budget, which included the funds needed – $1.3 million – to get deadly drift gillnets out of the water. For years, the nets used off the coast of California have killed more dolphins than all other observed U.S. West Coast and Alaska fisheries combined.

In 2018, following campaigning by Oceana and allies, California passed a law that established a transition program – dependent on state and outside funding – to destroy and recycle the gillnets, compensate fishermen, and incentivize the use of cleaner gear to catch swordfish. In September 2020, Oceana triggered California’s four-year phaseout period for all remaining drift gillnet permits when we transferred $1 million to the state. This was made possible by generous donations from the Cinco Hermanos Fund, Marisla Foundation, Offield Family Foundation, and Sue J. Gross Foundation, as well as several families and individuals. California’s new budget closes the final funding gap, completes the state drift gillnet transition program, and ends any continued fishing with this method by January 31, 2024.

We can now begin the countdown to the end of the use of “walls of death” in U.S. Pacific waters. While meant to catch swordfish, drift gillnets also catch, injure, and kill sperm whales, bottlenose dolphins, leatherback sea turtles, and other non-targeted marine life. Once entangled in these nets, many of these animals sustain serious injury from their attempts to escape or simply drown (because they are unable to free themselves or come up for air or, in the case of non-targeted fish, to swim and push seawater and needed oxygen through their gills).

The transition program provides California fishermen the opportunity to catch swordfish with more selective, cleaner methods like deep-set buoy gear. This innovative gear catches swordfish selectively using vertical lines with baited hooks at depths specific to swordfish. According to Oceana and based on 2019 NOAA estimates, transitioning this California fishery from drift gillnets to more sustainable methods of fishing will save at least 548 dolphins, 333 seals and sea lions, 70 seabirds, 27 whales, and 24 sea turtles over ten years.

Twenty-eight of the 32 active drift gillnet fishermen have agreed to participate in the program and at least 15 miles of drift gillnets have already been turned in for destruction and recycling into other products. Those who participate will receive $110,000 and become first in line for a new federal deep-set buoy gear permit.

With this victory for abundant oceans at hand in Sacramento, Oceana now turns its attention back to Washington, DC. On January 1, President Trump vetoed the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act (S.906), originally introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. The bill seeks to prohibit large-mesh drift gillnets nationwide. A month after the veto, Sen. Feinstein reintroduced the bill. Oceana continues to campaign for this bill to become law, and your support can help us make this a reality. Please contact your U.S. representative here. Together we can end the use of these “walls of death” in U.S. waters for good.