Senate Passes Bipartisan Bill to Protect Whales, Dolphins, Sea Turtles from Drift Gillnets
Sep 15 2021
Washington—The Senate yesterday unanimously passed the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act, a bipartisan bill introduced by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). The bill would phase out harmful large mesh drift gillnets used in federal waters off the coast of California – the only place the 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, which left too little time to schedule an override vote. The president’s veto was based on misinformation and misguided policy. A comprehensive rebuttal of the veto message is available here. President Biden is expected to sign the bill if it is passed by the House of Representatives.
Large mesh drift gillnets, which are between a mile and a mile-and-a-half long and can extend 200 feet below the ocean surface, are left in the ocean overnight to catch swordfish and thresher sharks. However, at least 60 other marine species, including whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, fish and sharks, can also become entangled in the large mesh net “walls,” injuring or killing them. Most of these animals, referred to as bycatch, are then discarded.
In 2018, California passed a four-year phase-out of large mesh drift gillnets in state waters to protect marine life. A majority of the driftnet fishermen have voluntarily participated in that phase out. The Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act would extend 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, including a grant program to supplement state funds.
The use of large mesh drift gillnets by a single fishery based in California is responsible for 90 percent of the dolphins and porpoises killed along the West Coast and Alaska.
“The Senate has once again voted unanimously to pass our bill, showing its broad support,” Senator Feinstein said. “Drift gillnets indiscriminately kill whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea turtles and other marine animals. They have no place in our waters when more efficient, sustainable and profitable methods are available. I’m working with my House colleagues to move this bill through their chamber and get it to the president’s desk as quickly as possible. It’s time to phase out these harmful drift gillnets.”
“While the use of large mesh drift gillnets is already prohibited off the coasts of most states, these tools are still injuring or killing a whole host of marine animals off California’s coast,” said Senator Capito. “These driftnets are left in the ocean overnight to catch swordfish and thresher sharks. However, at least 60 other marine species, such as seals and turtles, can also become entangled in these nets, injuring or killing them. I’m thrilled this legislation has now passed the Senate and look forward to the president signing this into law.”
The bill would phase out the use of the nets and help the industry transition to more sustainable methods 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 as much as 98 percent of animals caught with deep-set buoys are actually swordfish, resulting in far less bycatch than large mesh drift gillnets, which average a 50 percent catch rate of target species.
A seven-year study by the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research found that fishing vessels using the new deep-set buoy gear caught 83 percent more swordfish than those using traditional large mesh drift gillnets. Also, because vessels are alerted as soon as there is a bite, swordfish are transported to markets faster than with large mesh drift gillnets, resulting in higher-quality products that bring a higher price.