February 24, 2014


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.

Photo: NOAA
Photo: NOAA

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


13 thoughts on “California’s Deadliest Catch

  1. Thanks for sharing this information. Gill nets of all kinds remain a problem in many places where they are used.

    Just south of us here in California, in Baja California Sur, 2,000+ loggerhead sea turtles along with olive ridleys, green turtles and hawksbill turtles, die in bottom set gill nets EVERY YEAR.

    This is the most acute sea turtle bycatch problem in the world.

    We have nearly 2 decades of research, recommendations, and solutions on record but the state government continues to dismiss the problem.

    One misinformed administrator suggested that the turtles die because they are “tired”. Others mistakenly blame the mortality on toxins. Hoping Mission Blue and all of its partners can help solve this before the fishery reopens this spring.

  2. NMFS scientists report that over 90% of the total bycatch by numbers in the DGN fishery comes from a single species, the common mola (sunfish). Although there has not been a definitive study on the survivorship of common mola released from DGN gear, observations by NMFS observers and researchers suggest that a high percent (>90%) of them are released alive.


    The information from these workshops was instrumental in the Seafood Watch programs decision to change the ranking of common thresher and shortfin mako sharks caught in California and Hawaii from “avoid” to a “good alternative” ranking just months after these workshops.

    Also, the CA DGN fishery has not killed one single sea turtle in over 14yrs. Why do you suggest otherwise? Prove it.

    Stop looking for the low hanging fruit and go after the real bad guys. Go after the IUU fisheries.

    1. I was an invited participant at the workshop you mentioned and here is my response:

      Common Mola-
      • Data from the past 10 years suggests that common mola represent closer to 50% of the bycatch, rather than 90% you report. This represents about 105,000 molas captured over this period.

      • Released alive is not the same as released unharmed. Driftnets definitely cause injuries to these large fish- it cuts into their skin, scrapes off their protective mucus, flood their gills with air, likely causes a significant buildup of lactic acidosis as a result of stress which can be fatal to some fish species, to name a few of the impacts of capture. Mortality rates after release in driftnets is not known, nor is there any information on impacts of injuries from driftnets that may reduce reproductive fitness, ability to feed normally, etc.

      Sea Turtles-
      • It is untrue that no sea turtles have been captured in the past 14 years. In fact, there have been 2 OBSERVED captures in the past decade. Please note the vast majority (85%) of vessels do not have observers, so the actual number is likely 6 to 7 times higher… Furthermore, the lower numbers in recent years are the result of the fact that environmentalists sued in federal Court which resulted in 250,000 square miles of ocean being closed to driftnetting during the time of year sea turtles are most likely to be present. Yet, the industry continues to work to end or reduce the time and size of this closure, despite its success in reducing (but not eliminating) sea turtle bycatch.

      Seafood Watch-
      • I have been a Seafood Watch data reviewer for swordfish and other species in the past and I can assure you that their decisions are based on carefully reviewed data AND politics. When National Marine Fisheries Service places restrictions on a given fishery (even when under force of litigation), I believe Seafood Watch feels obliged to move fish out of the “red” category into the “yellow” and that probably explains the current status of some of the target species for this fishery being upgraded from the avoid category. I suspect that the recent capture of an estimated 16 endangered sperm whales, despite all the current restriction on the fishery, will likely result in swordfish being moved back to the avoid (red) category when Seafood Watch issues their next report.

      • Swordfish and sharks (including mako and thresher), the primary harvested species from this fishery are high in mercury and can be harmful to your health. The EPA, FDA and CA Department of Health Services warn women of reproductive age and children NOT to eat these species.

      We believe the CA driftnet fishery is currently one of the most harmful fisheries off our coast. Furthermore, it catches species high in mercury that humans should avoid. We do not disagree that IUU fishing is also a very real problem for ocean biodiversity and the organizations calling for the closure of the CA driftnet fishery has also been and continues to be involved in actions to eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fisheries throughout the world.

      1. Hello Todd,
        Thanks for the reply. I just have a few questions.

        Can you please provide me with a link to a source stating that the common mola accounts for 50% of DGN catch as opposed to 90%?

        Can you please provide a link to the source stating 2 sea turtles have been caught accidentally by DGN in last 14 years? About a year ago I saw an online observer database that showed zero turtles caught in last 14 years, but now the site/link is not working.

        You also note DGN observer coverage is only around 15%, but in recent years it’s been more like 22%. Even so, what are your thoughts on the fact that most swordfish consumed in US comes from fisheries with 0% observer coverage? Are you helping to fund RFMOs to help fix this?

        As for the swordfish workshop you attended, I set up and attended the one prior to that. It was such a success that they did it again a month later (the one you went to.)

        Interesting how you hint that SeafoodWatch is influenced by fishing industry. That’s a loaded statement.

        As for threshers being high in mercury, you’re wrong. “Analysis of mercury in the muscle (Suk et al. 2009) reveals levels substantially lower (mean 0.13 ± 0.15 μg/g) than the FDA recommendations of 1.0 μg/g. Mercury concentration increased with shark size to a maximum of 0.7 μg/g for a 241 cm fork length (~ 425 lb) individual, still below the FDA recommendations.”

        Lastly, what are you doing (specifically) to combat IUU fishing?

  3. I met Sylvia Earle a a Marine Debris Conference in Galveston. A treasure I will never forget. She had a huge impact on me..So many things have changed…I know fight,with many to help the endangered/vulnerable to extinction species being killed 24/7,no bag limit,no monitoring,etc,under the Native Title Act 1993. .Even protected Marine parks are hunted.While I respect all cultures,people,this is not traditional hunting going on.We are talking about VULNERABLE TO EXTINCTION species,sea turtles,dugongs,etc. I so wish others would help us stop this.

    Please watch the video above. Please be warned it’s graphic. If there is anyone out there that would like to help spread the word,share a link,please do..We need to change the outdated Native Title Act 1993, to protect the endangered species .


    Please look at these pages.You will see what is happening…Join the group ,lead by an indigenous woman,so very intelligent and compassionate. Very respectful group,all cultures,from all over the world. Please help us fight to change the outdated Native Title Act .

    1. We are preparing the documents to become a Hope Spot in Plettenberg Bay South Africa. Communication to all NGO’s, schools, government etc is needed to get all on board. Please can you advise or recommend the branding and logo that we can use to be identified. ie. do you have a ‘Hope Spot’ logo that we can use. Many thanks

  4. Drift net fishery is a big problem as these nets don’t always catch their main target (which is also not a good thing for the balance of the ocean’s ecosystems) It’s time to let nature heal our oceans without the intervention of humans and their killer instruments.

  5. We need to set an example for the rest of the world … and until we do, we cannot discourage or eliminate this crime against nature anywhere else on the planet. California should set the standard and not be calling other States or countries to task whilst allowing the practice inside their own jurisdiction. It’s totally unacceptable.

    1. The CA gillnet fishery takes less swordfish than any other fleet in the Pacific rim and is the most regulated of all other gillnet fisheries in the world. They do lead the way. This is good news. The bad news comes when you eliminate a fishery that leads the way. Then you are left with nothing but imported fish from nations with no regulations or enforcement at all. Don’t believe the hype. Do your homework. http://www.eatusseafood.com

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