Drift Gillnets Upgraded to “Category I” Threat to Marine Mammals | Oceana

Drift Gillnets Upgraded to “Category I” Threat to Marine Mammals

Press Release Date: April 22, 2013

Location: Monterey, CA


Anna Baxter | email: abaxter@oceana.org
Anna Baxter

Today the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a proposed rule to upgrade the classification of the California swordfish and thresher shark drift gillnet fishery from “Category II” to the more serious “Category I” listing for its deadly take of whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions. This re-classification is the result of the fishery injuring and killing an estimated 16 endangered sperm whales in 2010, taken in mile-long drift nets used to target swordfish off the California coast. Over the last five years, the fishery also caught numerous minke whales, humpback whales, gray whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals. Oceana applauds the agency for taking an important step in what will hopefully lead to the drift gillnet fishery being phased out, closed, and replaced with cleaner gears like harpoons.

“While this Category I listing highlights the fact that these driftnets continue to kill unacceptably high numbers of endangered and protected whales and dolphins off California, simply issuing new government permits is not the solution,” said Ben Enticknap, Pacific Campaign Manager and Senior Scientist with Oceana. “It’s time this wasteful and destructive fishery is phased out and closed once and for all.”

Drift gillnets are mile-long nets set in the open ocean off California to target swordfish and thresher sharks. They have been banned in international waters, throughout the Mediterranean, and off Oregon and Washington, making California a key exception to this international trend.  Aptly called “walls of death” by conservationists, these destructive nets are well known for ensnaring, injuring and killing more than 130 protected marine mammals, on average each year, as well as discarding multiple species of sharks, tunas, and other fish by the thousands. Today’s proposed action shows the threat of bycatch in the California drift gillnet fishery is no longer an excusable certainty.

“It’s shameful that the California legislature and federal government continue to allow this destructive, unsustainable gear type,” said Geoff Shester, California Program Director of Oceana. “Drift gillnets have no place off California, and the real question is how to harvest swordfish without destructive bycatch.”

NMFS scientists concluded that the California, Oregon, and Washington stock of sperm whales is being either killed or seriously injured by this fishery at a rate of 213% of its Potential Biological Removal (PBR)—or maximum number of unnatural deaths that a marine mammal population may incur while still allowing that population to reach an optimum sustainable level. The Category I listing requires the fishery to take onboard observers and to comply with take reduction plans. These plans, however, are still in question while NMFS undertakes a new biological consultation required by the Endangered Species Act for the fishery’s impacts on threatened and endangered species of whales and sea turtles.

This listing is required under the Marine Mammal Protection Act for a fishery that frequently kills or injures marine mammals. This proposal would make California’s swordfish drift gillnet fishery the only Category I fishery on the U.S. West Coast or Alaska.

“It is clear drift gillnets continue to threaten the health of the wild marine ecosystem off our coast,” said Enticknap. “With cleaner, economically viable alternative gears available, there is no reason to continue to permit these walls of death.”


Oceana is the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans. Oceana wins policy victories for the oceans using science-based campaigns. Since 2001, we have protected over 1.2 million square miles of ocean and innumerable sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and other sea creatures. More than 550,000 supporters have already joined Oceana. Global in scope, Oceana has offices in North, South and Central America and Europe. To learn more, please visit www.oceana.org.