Deadly Driftnets Will Not Be Expanded Into Sea Turtle, Whale Habitat Off California Coast

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In an important victory for ocean wildlife, federal fishery managers in Sacramento today decided not to expand driftnet fishing into protected sea turtle habitat along the California coast because it would significantly raise the risk of capture and drowning of endangered whales, sea turtles and dolphins.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council (the Council) called for immediate action to: 1) impose strong whale protections regulations on the driftnet fleet that expired in January 2014, and to 2)  test lower bycatch fishing gears for catching swordfish. But the Council failed to take direct action to remove driftnets from the California coast, though the gear is banned in Oregon and Washington.

“Finally, sea turtles and whales are getting a little help, instead of more fishing threats,” said Teri Shore, Program Director, Turtle Island Restoration Network, “Yet the driftnets will still be out on the water as usual this year, needlessly capturing and killing ocean wildlife. After decades of this, we were hoping for more.”

“Leatherback sea turtles and sperm whales shouldn’t drown in fishing nets, so we’re happy to see the council recognize the danger these massive nets pose,” said Catherine Kilduff, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Keeping awesome ocean creatures safe requires fishing smartly, not with mile-long driftnets.”

Not long ago, an estimated 16 endangered sperm whales died in the California driftnet fishery. Last season at least one gray whale and two short fin pilot whales perished in the driftnets, according to preliminary fishery observer data.

The Council dismissed the swordfish fishery’s proposal to allow high bycatch driftnets into protected sea turtle habitat in the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary that is within the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Area. It also:

1. Called on National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to impose emergency sperm whale protections on the driftnet fishery when it opens May 1;

2. Called on NMFS to propose new Experimental Fishing Permits for testing of fishing gear alternatives to driftnets, such as low bycatch buoy gear.  If that includes high bycatch longline gear, conservation groups will oppose it since the gear is already prohibited due to threats to endangered species along the U.S. West Coast.

3. Discussed requiring 100 percent observer coverage on the driftnet fleet, which has averaged 15 percent over the past two decades. More observer coverage would provide more information on the deadly nature of this fishery for a wide array of marine mammals and bolster support for a driftnet ban.

4. Discussed limits on the number of sea turtles, whales, dolphins and other marine life that the driftnet fleet can kill each year before requiring the fishery to close for the season.  Right now there is no such cap.

In 2010, an estimated 16 endangered sperm whales were killed, triggering emergency regulations in 2013 that would have required closure of the fishery if one sperm whale was killed. None were, but one gray whale and two short-finned whales were killed, according to preliminary reports from National Marine Fisheries Service.

The CA driftnet fishery consists of 20 or fewer active vessels, yet the fishery is responsible for accidentally killing an average of 138 marine mammals, including dolphins, whales and sea lions every year — more than any other commercial fishery along the U.S. West Coast. Thousands of vulnerable blue shark, sunfish and other finfish are caught and dumped overboard dead or dying. Read TIRN’s Report, California’s Deadliest Catch.


Turtle Island Restoration Network ( is an international marine conservation organization headquartered in California whose 60,000 members and online activists work to protect marine biodiversity in the United States and around the world.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 675,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.