SUFB 051: Driftnets Killing Marine Wildlife Along California Coasts


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Speak Up For Blue Podcast

Today on the Speak Up For Blue Podcast, we’re going to talk about driftnets. The Monterey Herald ran an opinion piece this past Saturday in which Todd Steiner, the Director of Turtle Island Restoration Network, called for a ban on California drift netting.

Driftnets are essentially modified gill nets that hang vertically in the water column and passively drift through the water. They’re usually made of very fine plastic (either monofilament or multifilament) and are fished at night, two features that reduce the net’s visibility to fish and results in high catch volumes. In California, these driftnets are used to catch swordfish and sharks. The problem is, there’s nothing stopping these nets from catching literally anything that swims into and gets tangled up in the mesh. And about 80% of the time, it’s not a shark or a swordfish.

According to Steiner’s article, 80,000 giant ocean sunfish and 8,000 blue sharks have been caught in driftnets in the past decade. Steiner also claims that “California driftnets kill more whales and dolphins than all other West Coast fisheries combined.” The list of driftnet fatalities goes well beyond dolphins and whales; it includes sea turtles, seals, sea lions, and shorebirds too. Many of these species are threatened or endangered, and are worth more to the economy alive via ecotourism than they are dead. Therefore, not only are these nets ecologically harmful, they are also directly hurting the long-term sustainability of a significant portion of coastal economies. All of this raises the question, why is this method of fishing still legal?

Well, in some places it isn’t. In 1992, the U.N. banned the use of driftnets longer than 2.5 kilometers in international waters. Coastal states in the U.S., including Florida, Oregon, and Washington have banned the practice as well. Many Mediterranean and Pacific countries have also made this practice illegal. The problem is, enforcing this type of ban is incredibly difficult. Illegal drift netting, which causes ecological and economic harm through the reckless extraction of large marine animals, is still a major problem for the international community. Unfortunately, the extent of drift net activity isn’t limited to illegal fishing. In California, as I mentioned earlier, drift netting is still legal. In a state that we just commended last week for leading the way in environmental sustainability, it’s perfectly fine to fish with a method that has less than a 20% success rate. Even baseball, where players are expected to hit a ball less than 3 inches wide screaming at them at 90 mph with a piece of wood less than 3 inches thick, expects a greater success rate.

To be fair, there’s less than 20 vessels left in this drift net fishery, and all signs point to its ultimate collapse (hopefully) in the near future. That being said, it’s well past time that this law came off the books. I know it’s Monday, but get it together California.

Enjoy the Podcast!

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