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Oceana Seachange 2014

Leonardo DiCaprio joins the fight to end drift gillnetting

Sperm whales are the largest of the toothed whales (with males reaching about 52 feet in length) and are impressive deep divers, able to dive for over an hour reaching depths of over 3,280 feet. Sperm whales are found year-round in California waters, but they reach peak abundance from April through mid-June and from the end of August through mid-November. It is estimated by the National Marine Fisheries Service that the California swordfish drift gillnet fishery captured 16 sperm whales over a five-year period, from May 1, 2007 to January 31, 2013
NOAA/courtesy of FOIA by Oceana


There’s an extended metaphor that Geoff Shester, Oceana’s California campaign director, uses to illustrate the importance of the waters off California’s coastline.

“In Kenya and Tanzania,” he explains, “the grasslands of the Serengeti provide seasonal feeding grounds for millions of wildebeests, zebras, gazelles and other plains animals. That attracts apex predators – lions, leopards, and cheetah. It’s not as easy to see, but the Pacific Ocean off of California is the equivalent for marine life. Huge blooms of food make feeding grounds for krill and small fish, which in turn attract larger fish, then sharks, dolphins, seals, and whales.”

Shester and his colleagues liken this strip of the ocean – unique because of the nutrient-rich water that upwells from the Pacific’s uncharted depths – to the famous Serengeti plains.

And like the African Serengeti, they want to see it protected.

Which is where the metaphor turns grim – because besides being an ecological haven, this vital band of blue is the hunting ground of California’s drift gillnetting fishery.

“Now take the Serengeti with all those
proud animals,” Shester continues, “and imagine humans trying to hunt for zebra by stretching a mile-long electric fence along the migration path. Would you get zebra? Sure. But you’d also kill
lions, leopards, wildebeest, and all sorts of other animals you weren’t going for. That’s how drift gillnetting works.”

Shester’s analogy makes the essential problem with drift gillnets (often dubbed “walls of death”) empirically clear and goes a long way toward illustrating a problem that has literally and metaphorically been hidden below the surface. The nets catch swordfish in their mesh but they also entangle any other animals traveling this marine superhighway. In the case of aquatic mammals, the ability to surface for air is often compromised, resulting in drowning.

“Imagine if someone was doing that in the Serengeti?” Shester asks. “There would be a massive uproar within a day. But it’s happening right here, off of the waters of our home state, as we speak.”

California is the only state on the West Coast that does not have a ban on drift gillnets – which are used to hunt for swordfish and thresher sharks. As Shester points out, these nets are considered to be highly ineffective, with 61 percent of all catch being discarded. These accidental catches, called “bycatch,” included leatherback turtles (California’s state marine reptile), gray whales (California’s state marine mammal), and a wide range of other mammals, sea birds, and sharks.

“In short, drift gillnets kill things they aren’t intending to kill,” says Bill Sydeman, President and Senior Scientist of the Farallon Institute for Advanced Ecosystem Research. “That’s not a sustainable fishery in my mind.”

The issue has become a focus for Oceana and received increasing public attention ever since a Freedom of Information Act request revealed photos showing dead and dying marine mammals taken out of drift gillnets.

Now the fight against drift gillnetting is poised to receive even more attention after being specifically named in a recent $3 million grant to Oceana by actor Leonardo DiCaprio. The grant encompasses Oceana’s work in Chile and the arctic, but all indicators are that a portion of the money will go to the anti-gillnetting efforts. More than just the financial assistance, DiCaprio has a unique ability to raise public awareness in a way that reaches beyond those already involved in the conservation conversation.

“One tweet from Leo DiCaprio can be more effective than us buying a full-page ad in theNew York Times,” Shester says. “He’s that influential.”

Sure enough, DiCaprio’s tweets with the hashtag #StopTheNets have been seen by millions and retweeted upwards of five thousand times. His support creates its own groundswell and is by no means just lip service—the movie star is a well-versed environmentalist who recently gave an address at the U.S. State Department’s Our Ocean conference.

“We cannot afford to be bystanders in this pre-apocalyptic scenario,” DiCaprio said on the topic of ocean habitat destruction. “We have to become the protagonists in the story of our own planet’s salvation.”

The speech was nothing short of stirring, and was accompanied by an additional $7 million pledge (above the Oceana grant) toward protecting oceans and creating marine reserves.

DiCaprio is also slated to speak at Oceana’s SeaChange event in Laguna Beach on August 16, and, though it isn’t an explicit part of Oceana’s plan, his voice surely also has the potential to affect the demand for swordfish by consumers. Swordfish and thresher shark, it’s worth noting, are extremely high in mercury and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have both fish on their “do not consume” lists for small children and pregnant or nursing women.

That’s not to say that Oceana (or by extension  Sydeman’s Farallon Institute) want to see all swordfish boats vanish. Instead, they point to more time-honored techniques (drift gillnetting only started in the 1980s) such as harpooning – which has zero bycatch.

“No one wants to see someone lose their livelihood,” says Sydeman, “but from a population biology perspective, supporting practices that aren’t causing this level of unintended mortality would make the fishery more sustainable.”

The drift gillnet fishery is quick to counter that changing over to harpooning or line fishing will make swordfish un-viable financially but Shester suggests that this is perhaps due to the way we look at swordfish in the first place.

“It’s a white tablecloth product,” he says. “And here we are going into what scientists believe is one of the last pristine eco-systems on the planet and fishing it in an incredibly reckless way. If you’re going to chase swordfish, you have to figure out how to take them one by one. Perhaps the diner has to pay twice as much, but it’s a luxury –it should be expensive.”

Already, the drift gillnet fishery in California is in decline. In 2013, 16 vessels reported $920,000 in revenue—which represents roughly 0.5% of California’s total commercial fishing industry. Though recent state legislation to ban drift gillnetting didn’t pass, separate proposals to expand use of the technique also failed and public support of a ban widened, setting the stage for 2015.

In the meantime, Oceana, empowered by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation grant, plans to attack the issue on a variety of levels.

“What has proven effective for us is distributing information, pursuing litigation, and taking part in direct advocacy,” Shester explains. “We start with science, cultivate public support, and then turn to attorneys who really know how to win these battles from a legal perspective—all the while continually mobilizing the public.”

Globally, the tide is surely flowing in Oceana’s direction. Drift gillnetting has long been banned by the European Union in Mediterranean waters, and on the high seas by the United Nations. Opponents of the California ban say that imported swordfish caught in drift gillnets will become the product of preference for restaurants, but scientists note a lack of accountability in that argument. In order to lead from an ecological standpoint, California has to set an example—much as it has with green building and clean energy.

DiCaprio’s speech at SeaChange offers another opportunity to get the message out and push the needle—in part by spurring the financial generosity of donors and helping cultivate political influence, but also through the mega-star’s ability to activate the public. Like all ecological movements, the push to end drift gillnetting will rest in the hands of the engaged citizenry.

“At the end of the day, the oceans belong to each of us,” Shester concludes. “It’s the inheritance of our children. With that in mind, it’s our stance that these walls of death have no place in our oceans and Mr. DiCaprio’s involvement will help tremendously in furthering that cause.”

Learn more :: oceana.org :: seachangesummerparty.org


Graphic photographs Oceana received from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show ocean wildlife that were killed at sea by the drift gillnet fishery targeting swordfish and thresher sharks in United States waters off California. Oceana obtained these disturbing images from NOAA in February 2014 in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Most of the photos had never been released to the public before. NOAA collects these images for species identification purposes through a fisheries observer program, which, in this case, identified animals such as sea lions, sharks, whales, and dolphins. Due to the difficulties in disentangling animals from the drift gillnets, fishermen often cut off the fins and tails of dolphins and porpoises to remove the untargeted animals from the nets.


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