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Keeping Wildlife and Fisheries Afloat: The conflict over drift gillnets along California’s coast

In October 2010, two endangered sperm whales off the coast of San Diego made national headlines when they became entangled in a large drift gillnet used to catch fish. One of the whales died as a result while the other was critically injured. This entanglement has sparked a flurry of heated debate over the future of California’s drift gillnet fishery.

The fishery, which expanded rapidly throughout southern California during the 1970’s, operates primarily between Cape Mendocino in northern California all the way to San Diego, between 12 and 200 miles off the coast. During its peak, the fishery established the use of gillnets as the region’s primary mode to catch swordfish, thresher sharks and shortfin mako. The nets used can be as large as a mile in length and cover over one million square feet. They drift through the ocean waters, stabilized by buoys, entrapping fish by their gills that get caught in the mesh.

Sperm whale, © Tim Cole/NMFS

Sperm whales, along with sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and other marine mammals get ensnared by gillnets.

The fishery faces great opposition from wildlife researchers and advocates, as well as the general public, and with good reason. Drift gillnets are known to snag an abundance of marine wildlife such as whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and seals, in addition to the intended fish catch. Once entangled in the nets, these animals cannot surface for air and often drown as a result. The number of deaths caused by drift gillnets is exacerbated by the long lengths of time the nets are left in the water as well as injuries these animals sustain during entanglement.

The nets also yield high numbers of additional fish species, including multiple shark species. Some incidental catch, or bycatch, like the sharks, can be sold, but about 20-30% is simply discarded back into the ocean as a result of it being killed or severely harmed during the fishing process, or it not being a profitable variety of seafood. The fishery discards more large sharks than the number of swordfish it catches.

In fact, drift gillnets have such a high rate of bycatch that Washington and Oregon have banned fishermen from using drift gillnets in their waters. This leaves California as the only state along the western coast of the United States to still allow the use of these deadly drift gillnets. Thankfully, marine wildlife advocates don’t expect that to last much longer.

Derelict nets, © Joan Drinkwin/USFWS

Fishing gear left unattended for too long can cause the needless deaths of many sharks, marine mammals and non-target fish.

Currently, the use of drift gillnets is prohibited from February 1 to April 30 and within 75 miles of the coastline between May 1 and August 14. In 2001, in response to lawsuits and public outcry, the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area (PLCA) was established, further prohibiting gillnet fishing between August 15 and November 15 from Big Sur to the Central Oregon coast. Unfortunately, though, these regulations have not been enough to prevent the entrapment of these animals, prompting public outrage and legal action as a result of violations to the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

In another step toward better protection, in September 2013 the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) adopted an emergency rule to protect sperm whales from being caught in drift gillnets, after two of the whales were entangled in 2010. The rule shuts down California’s drift gillnet fishery if a single sperm whale is killed or injured in the nets. It also requires boats fishing in waters deeper than 6,500 feet, where sperm whales can be found, to employ independent observers to watch for the whales and monitor any interactions between them and the fishery. The rule expired on January 31st, 2014 and NMFS is considering the extension of this rule until permanent protections can be put in place.

Recent attempts to expand the drift gillnet fishery – like a proposal to the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) to allow drift gillnet fishing in the PLCA – have been halted with the help of groups such as Defenders of Wildlife.  The Council declined the proposal, which could have resulted in increased death and severe harm to endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles, and sent a letter to NMFS requesting that the emergency protection rule be reinstated.

Unfortunately, the extension of the emergency rule is only a temporary solution and does not stop the enormous number of fish and marine mammals killed or harmed with each drift gillnet fishing season. In order to significantly reduce the fishery’s unsustainable levels of bycatch and prevent the injury and death of marine mammals, sharks, and sea turtles, new fishing technology must replace the antiquated practice of drift gillnet fishing.

Earlier this year, California Assemblymember Paul Fong from San Jose introduced AB 2019, a bill that would ban the use of drift gillnets for commercial purposes in California. Defenders is working to enact this bill into law in order to require the replacement of destructive gillnets with economically feasible fishing methods that will reduce bycatch and the negative impact that commercial fishing currently has on marine wildlife.

Haley Stewart, California Program Associate, Defenders of Wildlife

15 Responses to “Keeping Wildlife and Fisheries Afloat: The conflict over drift gillnets along California’s coast”

  1. gregory cleary

    you’ve got to be kidding, who are these morrons, If I was a lawyer they wouldn’t
    like me. you’ve got to be kidding!!!!!

  2. Nancy Vaughn

    If gillnets continue many small to large species will become extinct. We all know our oceans are struggling now to stay alive.We must take a stand and protest loudly every chance we get. This is a sad waste of marine life.



  4. tom van lear

    There is so much waste in commercial fishing, that it should be a crime. Fishing for what a family can eat is what the Holy Spirit would want us to do. Waste is not good for anyone. God bless.

  5. Nicolle

    How is this still happening??? I thought this was stopped with the passage of prop 132 in the early 90’s!?

  6. Dianne Burke

    On the land and in our Oceans, humans are destroying all natural life! We must take stock of this deadly situation, and make laws abolishing these killer nets before all is lost! On the land, other lives are being taken with rifles, snares and traps. We are on a killing frenzy all over our beautiful Home Planet Earth! It has to stop, for in this process, we are also killing ourselves.

  7. B Lewenza

    This law needs to be reinstated there are to many species at risk here. Man is causing total destruction on land and sea. They need to abolish this act all together before we are like China with little or no species left. We need a no kill policy in order the sooner the better.

  8. Therese

    This species is the primray reason cod and flounder cannot recover in the northwest Atlantic. Had the NMFS surveys a decade ago been correct the fishers would have been able to cull more out. Because of low quotas and the fact that a mature female dogfish can have as many as 3 sets of fertilized embryos at the same time at different stages of development in her body, there is no chance of cod recovering.Federal scientists most notably Dr. Paul Rago in Woods Hole denied to me that he was aware of these multiple embryo sets 11 years ago and a few months ago denied to me that he denied that fact back then. These scientists know little about the spiny dogfish. NMFS a few years back ASSUMED the mortality rate of dogfish was 100% in the recreational fisheries. Had they gone to ONE processing line for a day, they would have seen many dogfish with more than one hook scar. Had they gone to the same processing line, they would have actually seen multiple sets of embryos.Perhaps dogfish like lobsters and squid can store sperm thereby allowing them to fertilize their own eggs without the need for sex each time. More cooperative science is necessary to get control of these predators. Out of control dogfish and striped bass will continue to put fishermen out of business and leave consumers to pay huge money for a seafood dinner. Balancing nature by statute is idiocy. NMFS needs to look at the science done by SMAST, Virginia Institute of Marine Science and East Carolina University research and meld it into coherant data.The fact that the striped bass quota in Massachusetts was filled in a few weeks should tell the scientists that there are too many out there and nature is out of whack. The primray reason there are so many lobsters is there are so few cod.

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