After several years of campaigning by Oceana and our allies, we have won a significant victory against destructive fishing: the nets known as “walls of death” are coming out of the water.
The California swordfish drift gillnet fishery uses mile-long nets — nearly the length of the Golden Gate Bridge — that “soak” overnight in waters off California to capture swordfish. The nets also entangle, injure and kill marine mammals like whales, dolphins and sea lions as well as endangered sea turtles, sharks and other important fish species. For decades, and even as safer alternatives have become available, the nets have continued earning their ignominious nickname.
California Governor Jerry Brown has just signed into law a bill that will clean up this fishery. The new law will phase out the use of large-mesh driftnet fishing for swordfish, establish a buyout program and incentivize the use of clean swordfish fishing gear.
Despite 30 years of management measures aimed at reducing bycatch, the swordfish drift gillnet fishery had stubbornly remained one of the nation’s dirtiest fisheries in terms of bycatch. A 2018 National Marine Fisheries Service study estimated that, despite existing conservation measures, between 2001 and 2016 the California drift gillnet fishery captured 1,602 protected marine species including whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles and seabirds. For years, this fishery has killed more dolphins than all U.S. West Coast fisheries combined.
Oceana has fought to end this slaughter for years, advocating for hard limits on the bycatch of whales, dolphins and sea turtles taken in this fishery and filing suit in federal court when the National Marine Fisheries Service withdrew its proposed rule implementing the bycatch caps. We enlisted the help of actor and activist Kate Mara to highlight the risks of these nets. We campaigned for this new law’s passage in the state legislature and applaud its approval.
The oceans are a vital source of food and jobs for people around the world. Fishing can and should be a thriving industry. But the fishing methods used in this fishery result in a rate of bycatch that is unacceptably high. And, importantly, a newer fishing method using deep-set buoy gear has demonstrated the existence of a profitable, minimal-bycatch alternative.
This hard-won victory will help further clean up U.S. fisheries and protect innumerable marine mammals, sea turtles and sharks. And this new policy rewards responsible fishing, ensuring that these marine ecosystems can continue to thrive until the next fishing season, the next year, the next generation — and well into the future.