Last week, Oceana transferred $1 million to the state of California to end the destructive swordfish drift gillnet fishery, which, for years, killed more dolphins than all other U.S. West Coast and Alaska fisheries combined. The money will be used to implement the 2018 law – which passed following campaigning by Oceana – that established a program to destroy and recycle the nets, compensate fishermen, and incentivize the use of cleaner gear to catch swordfish. This victory was made possible thanks to generous contributions from the Marisla Foundation, Cinco Hermanos Fund, Offield Family Foundation, and Sue J. Gross Foundation, as well as several families and individuals, who provided the necessary funding to implement the California law.
This announcement follows years of campaigning by Oceana and our allies to end the use of this destructive gear. Drift gillnets are controversial for good reason. As a fishing gear, the nets were inefficient and wasteful. On average, more fish were thrown away than were kept. While the nearly invisible, mile-long nets were meant to catch swordfish, they also entangle, injure, and kill marine life like sperm whales, bottlenose dolphins, and leatherback sea turtles. Once entangled, many of these animals sustained serious injury or drowned in their attempts to escape. It’s no wonder these nets earned the notorious name: “walls of death.”
The $1 million donation triggered California’s four-year phaseout period for all remaining drift gillnet permits, ending any continued fishing with this method by January 31, 2024. Pulling these nets from California waters will not only help reduce indiscriminate catch, but also promote the use of more selective gear. Fishermen agree – over 90% of the remaining active drift gillnet fishermen are willing to participate in the program – and some have already started turning in their nets and permits. They will receive funds for their transition and be first in line for federal deep-set buoy gear permits, a profitable alternative that’s drastically more selective in catching swordfish than drift gillnets. Once complete, the phaseout will bring an end to the last remaining large-mesh drift gillnet fishery for swordfish in the U.S.
In February 2020, Oceana’s legal efforts further reinforced protections for marine life that may be captured in drift gillnets during this transition period. The National Marine Fisheries Services was ordered to implement strict limits – known as hard caps – on the number of whales, sea turtles, and dolphins that can be injured or killed in the California-based swordfish drift gillnet fishery. If those limits are reached, the fishery could be shut down for the remainder of the season, and even possibly for the next year.
These hard caps and the transition to cleaner gear will ultimately help protect Pacific Ocean abundance. And while we celebrate this victory, Oceana recognizes there’s still more work to be done. In July, the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act (S.906), introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and which seeks to prohibit large-mesh drift gillnets nationwide, passed the U.S. Senate. The bill now awaits passage in the U.S. House of Representatives. You can write to your representative here and ask them to protect all U.S. waters from this destructive form of fishing for good.
This campaign has been, and continues to be, hard fought. However, this victory is further evidence that by leveraging science, grassroots activism, strategic communications, and the law, Oceana’s campaigns deliver results. Together, we’re making “walls of death” a thing of the past and restoring our oceans with sound, science-based policies.