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January 27, 2014

Net Loss – Keeping Sperm Whales Out of Drift Gillnets


In 2010, as many as sixteen sperm whales drowned in drift gillnets intended for swordfish off the coast of California. In the recent issue of Oceana magazine, we cover Oceana’s efforts to protect Pacific sperm whales from this fate. Read an excerpt below, or visit the full article here.

Net Loss

Marine animals don’t die in nets—they suffocate. As fish swim through the net, the cords slip behind their gills and trap them in the mesh. There they wait. Unable to pass water through their gills and absorb oxygen, they slowly suffocate. Whales die differently, although their end is no less gruesome. With their flukes and fins tangled in swaths of weighted netting, they’re unable to reach the surface to breath. Slowly, they run out of oxygen and asphyxiate.

As many as sixteen sperm whales suffered this fate off the coast of California in 2010, according to estimates from the federal government. Caught in drift gillnets, the whales died alongside thousands of other marine creatures caught as bycatch— incidental casualties of California’s swordfish fishery. Oceana is fighting to replace drift gillnets with cleaner gear, protecting sperm whales and other marine life from an unnecessary death.

Drift gillnets are known by another name in conservation circles: “walls of death.” Set out by fisherman in the evening, these mile-long nets drift through the night, catching open ocean animals that swim into the fine mesh. “These nets are designed to kill large animals, and whether it’s a swordfish or a whale, the net does its job,” says Ben Enticknap, Oceana’s Pacific campaign manager and senior scientist.

The California drift gillnet swordfish fishery is surprisingly small—an estimated 25 boats in 2013. Yet despite its small size, this fishery has one of the highest bycatch rates in the country, says Susan Murray, deputy vice president of Oceana Pacific. It’s also one of the top killers of whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals on the U.S. West Coast. Data from federal government observers for the last five years reveals that for every two swordfish the fishery catches to sell, on average one blue shark, four ocean sunfish, and many other species are caught as bycatch.

 “These levels of bycatch are extreme,” says Murray. “We would never tolerate this level of waste in any other fishery.”

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