For decades, California fishers have targeted swordfish, mako, and thresher sharks as market catch using drift gill nets, or drift nets. To a lesser degree, white sea bass have been used targeting inshore driftnets. These nets have captured tons of swordfish and sharks, also killing thousands of other animals like seabirds, marine mammals and sea turtles and protected white sharks as bycatch.
Due to its effect on fisheries and marine resources, large scale drift net fishing has been banned on the high seas since 1993.
In a ten-year period ending in 2014, the California driftnet fishery caught
a staggering 26,217 sharks – more than 2,600 every year. This includes
thousands of blue sharks, shortfin mako sharks, and common thresher
sharks each year.
The swordfish drift gillnet fishery uses mile-long, nearly invisible mesh nets that are nearly the length of the Golden Gate Bridge. Set to drift overnight to capture swordfish, the nets often also entangle, injure and kill marine mammals like whales, dolphins and sea lions as well as endangered sea turtles, sharks and other important fish species.
Under a California law enacted in 2018, drift gillnet licenses will be phased out by January 2023. The law allows the small number of remaining permit-holders to claim up to $110,000 each if they agree to surrender their nets by 2020. The legislature hopes to encourage the adoption of deep set buoy gear, which is in use as a less-selective alternative
While phasing out this fishery so harmful to fish and wildlife, California Fish and Wildlife is testing shallow set longlines to replace the driftnets. This method will reduce bycatch on many animals, but the baited hooks will still capture targeted sharks as well as non-targeted sharks like blue sharks.
Tests conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in West Coast waters between 2011 through 2013 on deep-set longlines demonstrated that this gear captured 41 blue sharks for every swordfish. Blue sharks have been identified to be the most common large shark traded in the Hong Kong shark fin trade.
One Dirty Fishery for Another
In 2019 the commercial industry proposed introducing a new Pacific longline fishery federal waters offshore. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council deliberated opening a longline fishery in Federal waters outside of the EEZ allowing landings in California. These fishing lines stretch up to 60 miles long with thousands of baited hooks, killing mostly non-targeted sharks for tuna and swordfish.
In one Northeast Pacific longline study, blue sharks were the most shark caught as bycatch. Overall blue shark bycatch mortality in the pelagic longline fishery was estimated at 35%, while the estimated discard mortality for sharks that were released alive was 19%.
Shark Stewards submitted formal comments with compelling data on shark catch and testified at the hearing. With nearly 2500 petition signatures and filed comments, our testimony and the presence of scores of activists the PFMC voted to deny further scoping of this fishery. This does not necessarily permanently rule out this fishery. The industry proposes to continue fishing using shallow set longlines which will still have shark bycatch.
“From a political viewpoint, the important species in the bycatch were gray whale, striped marlin, minke whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata, California sea lion, common dolphin Delphinus delphinus, and blue shark; from an economic viewpoint, swordfish, albacore, and opah. Species of special interest or novelty included megamouth shark Megachasma pelagios, basking shark Cetorhinus maximus, and white shark Carcharodon carcharias.”California, Dept. of Fish and Wildlife
White sharks and other species that feed in California National Marine Sanctuaries and annually migrate west will have to bypass this gauntlet of baited hooks. Targeting swordfish, catch will include endangered leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles, Laysan and black-footed albatrosses and the most common animal caught: the sharks. Protected species like great white sharks, endangered species like mako sharks and the most common shark in the shark fin trade, blue sharks, will be captured and discarded dead.
Join Shark Stewards and Pew Charitable Trusts fighting this fishery off Pacific waters and support a ban on longline fisheries in the Pacific Ocean.
The California drift gill net fishery for sharks and swordfish, 1981-82 through 1990-91 Hanan, Doyle A., creator, Holts, D. B., Coan, Atilio L., California, Dept. of Fish and Game. 1993 (issued)