Feinstein in the News

By Ted Andersen

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

California is the last frontier for driftnet fishing but the sun may soon be setting on that.

Known for being decidedly dolphin unfriendly, driftnets — also known as gill nets — are uniformly banned across the United States yet still remain legal in California waters. But last week, Sen. Diane Feinstein moved forward with legislation to finally rid the state of the practice.

Up to 100 feet tall and a mile long, driftnets are a patchwork of fishing line sometimes referred to by opponents as "walls of death." They target swordfish but are more notable for unintentionally entangling and killing dolphins, sharks, seals and other sea life.

Feinstein's proposed Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act would phase out the use of large mesh driftnets in all US waters by 2020 and calls on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to help fisheries transition to alternative methods.

Large mesh driftnets are already banned in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, as well as off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii. The US is also a signatory to international agreements that ban large driftnets in international waters.

"The use of driftnets to target swordfish harms too many endangered or protected marine animals and should be phased out," Feinstein stated in a April 26 release. "It's unacceptable that a single California fishery that uses this type of driftnet is killing more dolphins and porpoises than the rest of the West Coast combined.

The timing of the bill, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Kamala Harris, comes after the Trump administration rejected a rule last year that would have increased accountability in the California swordfish industry.

Animal rights groups also recently posted undercover footage recorded off the coast of California showing the netting of sea animals, which are then killed or thrown overboard as "bycatch," and had been lobbying Feinstein's office to tighten regulations.

According to NOAA data, of the 2,369 sea animals caught in the nets from May 1, 2016 to January 31, 2017, 30 percent were swordfish. Of the 1,826 non-swordfish bycatch, 31 percent were kept for sale — including thresher and mako sharks, opah and mackerel. Of the 1,266 animals thrown back in the ocean, 12 percent were dead, though it is unknown how many injured animals survived.

Recent NOAA data also point to a more general problem of sea life entanglements on the West Coast, according to Justin Greenman, a marine mammal stranding network coordinator with NOAA. "They have been trending upward," he said.