The Secret Driftnet Fishery for Swordfish and Shark Off Our Coast
by Todd Steiner, Executive Director, Turtle Island Restoration Network
Few Americans realize that a deadly driftnet fishery targeting swordfish and shark operates off the California coast with fatal consequences for ocean wildlife.
Driftnets, which have been described as “curtains of death,” were banned on the high seas by the United Nations in the 1994. On the West Coast, Oregon and Washington have banned this deadly and unsustainable fishery, but unbeknownst to the public, they are still legal in California–plying our waters out of sight and out of mind.
In a new expose entitled, “CALIFORNIA’S DEADLIEST CATCH: The Drift Gillnet Fishery for Swordfish and Shark,” author Teri Shore lays out the impact this fishery is having on the discarded catch of whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and scores of fish species and outlines a plan of action to end this destructive fishery.
Over the past decade, more than 1,300 whales, dolphins, and sea turtles drowned after getting tangled in these large-mesh drift nets. Additionally, over a hundred thousand giant ocean sunfish and ten thousand blue sharks were also caught and discarded during the last 10 years. Recently, an estimated 16 endangered sperm whales were fatally injured.
Many schemes have been tried to limit the high collateral damage to marine species — including adding acoustical pingers on nets to reduce entanglement of dolphins and porpoises, time-area closures to reduce turtle and shark catch, and lowering the net depth to try to reduce whale entanglements. Yet more than 90 percent of the ocean life indiscriminately caught by these nets is neither swordfish nor shark, but dozens of other fish species that are caught and discarded overboard injured or dead.
Fewer than 20 vessels are left in this fishery, providing few jobs and little income. In comparison, businesses like whale watching and diving companies create recreational opportunities for tens of thousands of Americans, generating many more jobs and contribute much more to California’s economy. Yet federal fishery managers, under pressure from a small group of individuals, continue to promote this destructive, unnecessary and unhealthy fishery.
What about food security? California’s drift net fishery target the ocean’s top predators– swordfish and sharks that contribute to balanced and healthy ocean ecosystems. These species also contain some the highest levels of toxic mercury of any fish. Both the EPA and FDA recommend women of child-bearing age and children not eat swordfish and shark.
Turtle Island is leading the fight to demand that our political representatives permanently retire this fishery and stop the strip-mining the California coast before more whales, dolphins and sea turtles die in these curtains of death. As a result, Turtle Island has just sponsored a new state bill to protect marine life from driftnets, AB 2019 (Fong-San Jose). You can help pass the bill and end driftnetting along the California coast once and for all. Visit www.SeaTurtles.org to find out how.
Featured image: NOAA