Washington—The Senate Commerce Committee unanimously passed the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act, a bipartisan bill to phase out the use of harmful large mesh driftnets off the coast of California, the only place the nets continued to be used in the United States. Driftnets, which can be more than a mile long, are left in the ocean overnight to catch swordfish and thresher sharks, but often kill other marine species.
The bill, introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), is cosponsored by Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).
The bill phases out the use of large mesh driftnets in all federal waters over five years and authorizes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop a program to help qualified fisheries transition to more sustainable methods. The California legislature voted earlier this week to remove driftnets from all state waters.
“Advancing our bill out of committee is the second major victory for California’s marine wildlife this week,” said Senator Feinstein. “California remains the only place where large mesh driftnets are still used in the United States. As a result, a single fishery using this type of driftnet kills more dolphins and porpoises than the rest of the West Coast combined. Our efforts at the state and federal level will finally end the use of these harmful driftnets along California’s coast.”
“This bipartisan legislation will help ensure large mesh driftnets are no longer used in any U.S. waters, a practice that is already prohibited off the coasts of most states,” said Senator Capito. “I was happy to help advance our bill out of committee today to protect our marine wildlife from this harmful practice.”
“California must remain a vibrant, prosperous coast where our resources can thrive and marine wildlife can be free of endangerment,” said Senator Harris. “The advancement of this bill, removal of driftnets and their unintended consequences is a critical step toward ensuring that happens.”
In addition to swordfish and thresher sharks, at least 60 other marine species, including whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, fish and sharks, can also become entangled in the large mesh nets, injuring or killing them. In fact, for every swordfish caught using driftnets, four marine animals become entangled. Most of these animals, referred to as bycatch, are discarded.
In the United States, 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. However, they remain legal off the coast of California. The United States is also a member of international agreements that ban large-scale driftnets in international waters.
The Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act is necessary after the Trump administration rejected a rule last year that would have increased accountability in the California swordfish fishery.