Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 10, 2014

Contact:  Geoff Shester, Oceana, (831) 207-6981
Catherine Kilduff, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 644-8580

New Data Shows California Drift Gillnets Continue to Kill Marine Mammals in
Excess of Sustainable Limits

Conservation Groups Ask Federal Government for Emergency Measures, Fishing Gear Changes

MONTEREY, Calif.— The National Marine Fisheries Service has released new data showing that the California-based drift gillnet fishery targeting swordfish killed an estimated 53 marine mammals from May 2013 through January 2014. Fishery observers monitored 34 percent of the drift gillnet sets made last year; they documented that the fishery killed an estimated three California gray whales, six short-finned pilot whales, nine northern right whale dolphins, nine California sea lions and 26 short-beaked common dolphins. The mortality of short-finned pilot whales exceeded sustainable conservation limits for this marine mammal as established under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 4.6 whales per year.

“Every year that drift gillnets are used off the California coast to catch swordfish, the result is that iconic whales, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and thousands of fish are ensnared and killed as bycatch,” said Geoff Shester, California campaign director for Oceana. “Ultimately this gear type must be fully prohibited off the West Coast so we can have a sustainable swordfish fishery.”

Gray whale Short-finned pilot whale

A gray whale (left, 2013) and short-finned pilot whale (right, 2000) killed by California drift gillnets. An estimated three gray whales and six short-finned pilot whales were killed in the drift gillnet fishery in the 2013-2014 fishing season. Photos: NOAA.

In a letter sent to the regional Pacific Fishery Management Council — the 14-member voting body tasked with advising the Fisheries Service on federal fishery management — Oceana requested that this gear type used to catch swordfish be prohibited in all waters off the U.S. West Coast, and during any transition period that “hard caps” be established on the total number of whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, sharks and other fish that can be killed as bycatch. If such hard caps were reached or exceeded in any fishing season, the fishery would be shut down for the remainder of the season.

The fishery is currently operating without a valid permit as required by law, meaning the federal government is knowingly allowing it to operate illegally. Represented by the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana and the Turtle Island Restoration Network recently sent a 60-day notice of intent to sue the Fisheries Service for its failure to implement permanent conservation measures to protect endangered sperm whales killed in this fishery. In 2010 drift gillnets killed an estimated 16 sperm whales off California, which exceeds the maximum number of deaths that the population can sustain and still recover.

“Drift gillnets, which some people call ‘curtains of death,’ will never be a humane and safe way to fish our oceans,” said Catherine Kilduff at the Center. “It’s time fishery managers look for an alternative way to fish that won’t accidentally drown sea turtles, whales and sharks off the California coast.”

On Sept. 14 the Pacific Fishery Management Council will consider proposals to place “hard caps” on the number of endangered whales, sea turtles, and other marine life that can be injured or killed by this fishery. If any of the hard caps are reached, the fishery will be closed for the remainder of the fishing season. Last June the Council established its goal to reduce bycatch in the fishery and consider a longer-term transition to cleaner gear types; swordfish can currently be caught off California with harpoon gear that results in zero bycatch, and other cleaner gear types such as buoy gear may be on the horizon.

Over the past seven years the drift gillnet fishery for swordfish has captured, injured, and killed over 650 marine mammals including gray whales, short-finned pilot whales, sperm whales, minke whales, bottlenose dolphins, long-beaked common dolphins, northern right whale dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, short-beaked common dolphins, California sea lions and northern elephant seals. This fishery kills more whales and dolphins than any other fishery off the U.S. West Coast and Alaska combined.

The 2013-14 bycatch data collected by federal fishery observers and compiled by the Fisheries Service is available at:


The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 775,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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 600,000 supporters have already joined Oceana. Global in scope, Oceana has offices in North, South and Central America and Europe. To learn more, please visit

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