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Stop California Shark Bycatch

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.


U.S. Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have reintroduced the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act, a bill to phase out large mesh drift gillnets used in federal waters off the coast of California.

Illegal in California waters since 1994 due to the indiscriminate damage to sea life, this fishing method is the only place these nets are still used in the United States.  Congress passed the bill last year with overwhelming support but it was vetoed by President Trump on January 1.

Designed to entangle swordfish, mako and thresher shark, these large mesh driftnets are more than a mile long and are left to soak in the ocean overnight and also indiscriminately capture, injure, and drown other marine species including whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, fish, and sharks. Most of these animals, referred to as “bycatch,” are then discarded. The use of driftnets by a single fishery in California is responsible for 90 percent of the dolphins and porpoises killed along the West Coast and Alaska. At least six endangered, threatened, or protected species like leatherback sea turtles and sperm whales are harmed by driftnets off the California coast. Sharks are the most common catch, with over 40,000 blue sharks killed and discarded over ten years. 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 , the latter two listed as vulnerable and endangered by the IUCN.

This fishery is responsible for killing more sharks than any other of our coastline, including thousands of blue sharks which are discarded dead or dying.” said David McGuire, Director Shark Stewards, “After more than 20 years of killing innocent sea turtles, marine mammals and sharks, the West Coast drift gill net fishery must end. We hope that the Biden administration will quickly pass this bill so we can finally end this destructive fishing method forever.”

In 2018, California passed a four-year phase out of large mesh drift gillnets in state waters to protect marine life. The Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act would have extended similar protections to federal waters within five years and authorize the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help the commercial fishing industry transition to more sustainable gear types like deep-set buoy gear that uses a hook-and-buoy system. Deep-set buoy gear attracts swordfish with bait and alerts fishermen immediately when a bite is detected. Testing has shown that 94 percent of animals caught with deep-set buoys are swordfish, resulting in far less bycatch than drift gillnets.

Large mesh drift gillnets are already banned in the U.S. territorial waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii. However, they remain legal in federal waters off the coast of California. The United States is also a member of international agreements that ban large-scale driftnets in international waters.

Once this bill becomes a law, the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act will:

  • Phase out the last drift gillnet fishery in the United States over the next five years.
  • Destroy and recycle any remaining nets.
  • Help West coast fishermen transition to a more sustainable alternative.
  • Increase protection for pelagic marine wildlife such as dolphins, whales seabirds, sea turtles and sharks.

Shark Stewards has focused on shark catch and bycatch from the California driftnet fishery, and worked with a coalition since 2018 to reduce the damage caused by driftnet fishing to wildlife. To support a domestic fishery that is sustainable for local economies and fish populations, this regulation is critical for both.


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)