This post is a guest blog from Todd Steiner, Executive Director of the Endangered Species Coalition member group Turtle Island Restoration Network. They are working with other conservation groups to support legislation in California that would put an end to the use of drift gillnets, a commercial fishing technique responsible for enormous amounts of bycatch and the death and injury of many marine species. You can view their factsheet here (.pdf)


The Secret Driftnet Fishery for Swordfish and Shark Off Our Coast

Few Americans realize that a deadly driftnet fishery targeting swordfish and shark operates off the California coast with fatal consequences for ocean wildlife.

Photo credit NOAA
Photo credit NOAA

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, these nets are still legal in California and plying our waters out of sight and out of mind.

In a recent 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.

Now, the secret is out and CA Assembly-member Paul Fong recently introduced legislation (AB 2019) to phase out CA driftnet fishery, but it will be an uphill fight due to the strong influence of the commercial fishing industry— without citizen action.

This fishery began in the late 1970s when harpoon and set-net fishers adapted large nets to target thresher shark. Within five years, thresher sharks were severely depleted in California waters.

This is not surprising considering thresher shark life-history characteristics include late sexual maturity and low reproductive output.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species now lists thresher sharks as  “vulnerable” due to their declining populations.  Due to the dramatic decline of thresher sharks, the fishery fleet became a ‘swordfish’ fishery and continues to wreck havoc on a wife array of marine life.


Collateral damage has included “takes” (captured and killed or injured) of four species of endangered and threatened sea turtles, 13 species of whales, eight species of dolphins and porpoise, three species of seals and sea lions and two species of seabirds.

Many schemes have been tried to limit the high collateral damage from this fishery 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.

While some of the schemes have successfully reduced the impact of the fishery on a given besieged protected species, the unintended consequences have often resulted in new collateral on a different protected species.  Nonetheless, despite the many limiting conditions placed on this 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.

Photo credit NOAA
Photo credit NOAA

In total, more than 90 percent of the ocean life indiscriminately caught by these nets is neither swordfish nor shark, but dozens of other 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.

We are launching an NGO sign-on letter, a scientist sign-on letter and have an email alert individuals can sign.

To learn how you can get your voice heard on this issue, visit and/or contact Teri Shore at [email protected]


Todd Steiner

Executive Director, Turtle Island Restoration Network (








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