Two Endangered Sperm Whales Killed by California’s Drift Gillnets

SACRAMENTO – On Saturday, March 3, the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to pursue expanding California’s devastating drift gillnet fishery for swordfish and shark into an area now protected for critically endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles. Take Action: Say No to More Deadly Drift Gill Nets.

A new federal bycatch report also revealed that drift gillnet fishery observers witnessed two endangered sperm whales entangled and killed in the fishery in 2010. Since most entanglements go unseen due to low observer coverage, federal fishery managers estimated that as many as 16 sperm whales likely to have been injured or killed in the fishery that year. This is well above the legal limit of six sperm whales over three years allowed to be captured in the California drift gillnet fishery. Download the bycatch report here.

“The California drift gillnet fishery needs to be phased out if we are serious about achieving healthy fisheries,” said Teri Shore, Program Director at, a marine conservation group based in West Marin, CA, that has won strong protections for marine life harmed in the drift gillnet fishery. “Sea turtles are getting more endangered, not less, and these federal fishery managers are going rogue in trying to push longlining that nobody wants, not us, not the fisherman, not the state. Who wants to eat fish that is caught while killing sea turtles or whales?” protects and restores endangered sea turtles and marine biodiversity worldwide in ways that incorporate the ecological needs of marine species and the economic needs of local communities, both of which share our common marine environment. We accomplish our mission through grassroots and policy-maker education, consumer empowerment, strategic litigation and by promoting sustainable local, national and international marine policies.

Download the letter from conservation and animal rights groups opposing the fishery expansion. Download our comments opposing swordfish fishery expansion and on mercury in swordfish and shark. Download our powerpoint from the meeting.

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the State of California initiated actions at the Council meeting to increase domestic Pacific swordfish landings by initiating a new shallow-set longline fishery for swordfish despite the fact that the market trend in swordfish demand has been decreasing since the 1990s. Read the motions here.

“All the science suggests that endangered sea turtles need more protection, not less,” said Oceana California Program Director Geoff Shester. “Drift gillnets have unacceptable levels of bycatch of some of our most treasured and vulnerable marine life, so if we want to catch more swordfish, we need to pursue cleaner fishing methods.”

“Fishing that sweeps up the ocean’s marine mammals and sea turtles in big fishing nets, killing and maiming them, needs to be limited before it’s too late,” said Catherine Kilduff of the Center for Biological Diversity. “To go backwards on saving these amazing creatures makes no sense. Our public resources can’t sustain the cost of fish caught by indiscriminate fishing methods.”

The Pacific Fishery Management Council’s primary action specifically asked for an analysis of just how much of the sea turtle protected area could be reduced to allow more drift gillnet fishing.

The Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area prohibits drift gillnet fishing between August 15 and November 15 along the California and Oregon coasts from Point Sur to Lincoln City, Oregon, out to the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone. The southern boundary extends at 45 degrees, then out to the 200-mile Economic Zone. It was established in 2001 to protect the endangered leatherback which migrates from Indonesia specifically to feed on jellyfish off the U.S. West Coast. The Council tried to open the area once before in 2006, but the attempt was defeated by conservation groups.

The California drift gillnet fishery targets swordfish and thresher shark and uses nets that stretch a mile in length. The nets are set to “soak” overnight and catch almost all fish and animals that swim into them in the dark ocean.

Every year, the deadly fishery indiscriminately captures and kills or injures more than 130 protected whales, dolphins, seal and sea lions as well as thousands of sharks and other marine animals. The vast majority of those animals are dumped back into the ocean, dead or injured. Expanding the drift gillnet fishery would also lead to increased bycatch of iconic sunfish, bluefin tuna, blue sharks, striped marlin, and Albacore tuna.

The proposed drift gillnet expansion would also encroach on an ocean area that in January was designated as critical habitat for the endangered leatherback sea turtle.

Longlining along the coast is now prohibited by the State of California because of high bycatch of protected marine species and non-target marine species has been consistently defeated by conservationists, scientists, and the public. Read more here.

Assemblymember Paul Fong (D- Mountain View), who passed last year’s shark fin ban, recently introduced legislation (AB 1776) sponsored by that will designate the leatherback sea turtle as California’s official state marine reptile.

Sea is an international marine conservation organization headquartered in California whose 35,000 members and supporters work to protect sea turtles and marine biodiversity in the United States and around the world. For more information, visit

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 500,000 supporters have already joined Oceana. Global in scope, Oceana has offices in North, South and Central America and Europe. To learn more, please visit

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 320,000 members and online activists dedicated to protecting endangered species and wild places. For more information, please visit