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Amazing Disgrace: California Is the Only State to Permit Driftnets, Which Kill Thousands of Whales and Dolphins


California waters remain a death trap.

Until the 1980s, fishermen who fished for swordfish off the coast of California used harpoon guns to reel in their prey. As the industry modernized, the guns were exchanged for drift gillnets—gigantic nets the size of the Golden Gate Bridge that hang vertically in the water. By 1985, the catch reached a historic high, with fishermen landing more than 2,000 metric tons of fish. But there was a tragic and underdiscussed consequence of that approach.

A drift gillnet catches far more than just the target fish. It scoops up any marine animal unfortunate enough to swim in its path, including whales, dolphins and other marine mammals like seals and sea lions. Turtles, sharks, fish and even seabirds are also, inadvertently, trapped and killed by these nets. No surprise that environmentalists have dubbed them “invisible curtains of death.” But what may be surprising to many is that California is the last state in the nation to permit this destructive and unsustainable fishing method.

Turtle Island Restoration Project, a California-based international marine conservation organization, has been campaigning to end the use of drift gillnets, also called driftnets. Last year, they released a report titled California Driftnet Fishery: The True Costs of a 20th Century Fishery in the 21st Century that details the impact the state’s driftnet fishery has on marine wildlife.

While the fishery’s primary target is swordfish, the report reveals a shocking statistic: Only one in eight animals caught by the fishery is actually a swordfish. The unlucky, non-targeted species trapped by the nets are known as bycatch.

According to the report:

Over the past ten years, nearly a thousand air-breathing whales, dolphins and sea turtles have drowned, while thousands of sharks (that depend on constant movement) have suffocated. In the last ten years, an estimated 26,000 sharks overall were caught by this deadly fishery, with nearly 10,000 simply being tossed overboard.

The fishery was especially wasteful in its treatment of blue sharks. In the last decade, 8,186 blue sharks were caught, and an astounding 8,180 were discarded. Of those discarded, nearly 5,313 were dead. The fishery also caught an astounding 8,000 common thresher sharks (a candidate species for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act) and is further jeopardizing shark populations.

The report also found that, over the last decade, the fishery has killed around 900 marine mammals, among them bottlenose dolphins, gray whales, humpback whales, California sea lions and elephant seals.

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