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Bill banning large mesh drift gillnets passed Congress last year but was vetoed by President Trump

Washington—Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) today reintroduced the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act, a bipartisan bill to 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 appears below.

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.

“Let’s be clear: the Senate unanimously passed our bill and the House passed it shortly thereafter. There is no support to continue using these deadly nets in our waters,” Senator Feinstein said. “Large mesh driftnets indiscriminately kill whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea turtles and other marine animals. It’s time to transition the industry to more efficient, sustainable and profitable methods. Real-time data shows other fishing gear is more successful, profitable and sustainable. Now that we have a new administration, I’m hopeful that Congress will quickly pass our bill and we can begin to phase driftnets out.”

“While the use of driftnets 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,” Senator Capito said. “I’m proud to reintroduce this bipartisan legislation that will help ensure large mesh driftnets are no longer used in any U.S. waters, protecting our marine wildlife from this harmful practice.”

 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.

Summary of President Trump’s veto statement vs the facts

Veto Statement: Alternative gear for large mesh drift gillnets “has not been proven to be an economically viable substitute.”

The Facts: Swordfish caught using deep-set buoy gear can earn nearly double the price of that caught using large mesh drift gillnets since the gear is actively tended and results in fresher, higher quality fish. According to the Pacific Fisheries Information Network, boats using large mesh drift gillnets last year caught only 19.8 metric tons of swordfish which sold for an average of $3.62 per pound, while boats using deep-set buoy gear caught 79.4 metric tons of swordfish which sold for an average of $5.88 per lb.

Veto Statement: “An estimated 30 fishing vessels will no longer be able to fish.”

The Facts: The bill provides for a buyout program to compensate for retiring large mesh drift gillnets and provide additional financial support to switch to alternative gear. In California state waters, more than 90 percent of commercial fishermen are already voluntarily participating or have declared they will participate in the state’s buyback program.

Veto Statement: The Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act “will not achieve its purported conservation benefits.”

The Facts: Unlike large mesh drift gillnets, deep-set buoy gear is actively monitored so all non-target species caught with it are released alive. Additionally, up to 98 percent of animals caught with deep-set buoys are actually swordfish or other marketable catch, resulting in far less bycatch than large mesh drift gillnets, which averages a 50 percent catch rate of target species. Large mesh drift gillnets entangle at least 60 other species of fish, marine mammals and birds, including endangered species. The nets account for 90 percent of dolphin and porpoises killed along the West Coast and Alaska.

Veto Statement: “Without this fishery, Americans will import more swordfish and other species from foreign sources that frequently have more bycatch than our own fisheries.”

The Facts: The deep-set buoy gear fishery has the potential to produce a significant amount of swordfish, lessening the reliance on imported swordfish. Last year, vessels fishing with deep set buoy gear landed four times more swordfish than vessels fishing with large mesh drift gillnets

Congress has also enacted provisions in the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Magnuson-Stevens Act to restrict imports of foreign seafood that doesn’t meet U.S. bycatch standards. Therefore, the U.S. should lead on minimizing bycatch to the greatest extent possible in order to hold international fisheries to the same standards.

Veto Statement: “For the sake of American fishermen nationwide, I will not let the Congress circumvent the fisheries management process by effectively terminating a fishery without appropriate consultation and input from fishery management councils.”

The Facts: Fishery management councils have been consulted in preparing this bill and they support alternative, sustainable gear types.

In 2015, the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously to enact strict limits on the bycatch of sea turtles and marine mammals and require on-board bycatch monitoring all boats using large mesh drift gillnets. However, the Trump administration withdrew this rule proposed in 2017 but it was overturned by a federal court the following year.

In 2019, after robust scientific and economic analysis, the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously to approve the authorization of deep-set buoy gear, giving priority for new permits to former large mesh drift gillnet fishermen that voluntarily stop drift gillnetting. The National Marine Fisheries Service is currently working to add this gear to the West Coast Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan, which guides federal management of the swordfish fishery.