Does Your Swordfish Come With the Blood of Dead Whales, Dolphins and Sea Turtles?


California is ahead of the curve in many ways, but it’s the last place in the United States where a very destructive, unsustainable type of industrial fishing occurs: drift gillnet fishing, which inadvertently kills thousands of whales, dolphins and sea turtles

Drift gillnet fishing is a method used to catch swordfish involving underwater, mile-long nets that act as “curtains of death” for passing ocean wildlife. This method is so controversial that other states have banned or discontinued drift gillnet use.

Now, the Trump administration is proposing changes to California’s fisheries, but instead of improving this harmful fishery, they want to protect it. This would stymie any future opportunities California might have to prevent the deadly entanglements of sea turtles, whales and dolphins.

In the past decade alone, nearly 800 marine mammals have been killed by the few remaining drift gillnet boats off the California coast, including endangered animals like the sperm whale.

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Drift gillnets trap and kill an untold number of marine animals, like this pilot whale, in fisheries in California's waters and across the world. (image: NOAA)

For decades, permits for drift gillnet fishing have been issued by California, but now the federal government wants to take over. At first glance, this proposed action by the National Marine Fisheries Service could be seen as innocent streamline permitting. Yet, federal documents indicate that the real reason is more sinister.

In 2014 and 2016, California legislators introduced bills to phase out the drift gillnet fishery due to a groundswell of action by environmental and ocean conservation groups who made it very clear that sustainable methods are available to catch swordfish. A report from the Pacific Fishery Management Council suggests that the move to federalize the permits appears to be in response to the legislators’ efforts.

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A green sea turtle who drowned, trapped in a fishing net. (image: VisionDive/Shutterstock)

The Trump administration is trying to limit California’s ability to protect ocean wildlife from drowning in drift gillnets. Why? Most likely because the administration doesn’t want states to keep environmental protections that differ from the executive branch’s agenda. President Trump continues to show blatant disregard for responsible environmental management through actions like his executive order issued early this year requiring federal agencies to repeal two regulations for every new one issued.

In addition to a general disregard for the environment and how it is managed, the Trump administration has also clearly demonstrated an unwillingness to address how ocean wildlife and endangered species are continually harmed or killed by the drift gillnet fishery. A rule was proposed by the Obama administration and would have shut down the fishery for two years if two large whales or sea turtles were harmed by the nets. It’s not surprising that the Trump administration withdrew this proposed rule that would have established strict limits, or "hard caps," for the drift gillnet fishery on interactions with several protected species.

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A drift gillnet used to catch swordfish. (image provided by Turtle Island Restoration Network)

Federalization isn’t just about permitting; it is a veiled action to protect an outdated and destructive fishery from further environmental oversight. The Trump administration is adding insult to injury with these back to back actions blocking California’s efforts to protect wildlife off its coast.

If the permit is made federal, the California state legislature, which acts as the voice of California citizens, could potentially be cut out entirely from managing the drift gillnet fishery and loses its opportunity to do the right thing and shut down the destructive fishery for good.

Turtle Island Restoration Network, which was a sponsor of the 2016 bill, opposes this action to federalize the drift gillnet permits and limit the voices of Californian citizens, who are concerned about the deaths of marine mammals and other ocean wildlife off their coast. We are requesting that National Marine Fisheries Service withdraw its support of federalization. You can join us in opposing federalization by signing this petition to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which we will submit on November 14.

Swordfish has become a popular food offered in restaurants and markets, and most swordfish is caught by commercial drift gillnet and longline fisheries. These fisheries catch swordfish, but they also catch sea turtles, whales, dolphins and other marine wildlife every single day. In many cases, animals remain caught on a hook or in a net for several hours before being killed.

This is not the right time for federalization of permitting for drift gillnet fishing. The situation off the coast of California is still too delicate. If this permitting process is federalized, it’s entirely possible that the drift gillnet fishery could grow, and ocean species, some of them already teetering on the brink of total extinction, would suffer or be killed.

Consumers can help protect ocean wildlife by not buying or eating unsustainably caught swordfish personally and also by taking individual action to pressure businesses not to sell unsustainably caught swordfish. Find out more about the boycott at

Businesses are beginning to feel the pressure; already, several restaurants have pledged not to serve unsustainably caught swordfish. We’re not giving up.

Take action: Protect ocean wildlife and join the boycott of unsustainably caught swordfish. 

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