Bans large mesh drift gillnets that indiscriminately kill or severely injure many endangered, protected marine species
Washington—The Senate last night 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.) to phase out harmful large mesh drift gillnets utilized in the federal waters off the coast of California, the only place the nets are still used in the United States.
In 2018, California passed a four-year phase out of large mesh drift gillnets in state waters to protect marine life. 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.
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 nets, injuring or killing them. Most of these animals, referred to as bycatch, are then discarded.
The use of large mesh drift gillnets by a single fishery in California is responsible for 90 percent of the dolphins and porpoises killed along the West Coast and Alaska.
“California’s coast is one of the last places where large mesh drift gillnets are still used to catch swordfish, resulting in needless deaths of whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea turtles and other marine animals,” Senator Feinstein said. “We are now one step closer to removing these nets from our waters. There is no reason to allow the carnage of large mesh drift gillnets when there are better, more sustainable methods to catch swordfish. We can preserve the economically important swordfishing industry while protecting the ocean and its wildlife that are vital to California’s economy.”
“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,” Senator Capito said. “These driftnets, which can be more than a mile long, are left in the ocean overnight to catch swordfish and thresher sharks. However, at least 60 other marine species – including whales, dolphins, sea lions, and sea turtles – can also become entangled in these nets, injuring or killing them. With the passage of our bill, we are a step closer to helping protect our marine species by ensuring that these dangerous driftnets are no longer allowed in U.S. waters.”
Large mesh drift gillnets are already banned in the U.S. territorial waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii. However, they remain legal in federal waters 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 proposed regulation in 2017 that would have increased accountability in the California swordfish fishery.
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 94 percent of animals caught with deep-set buoys are swordfish, resulting in far less bycatch than drift gillnets.
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 driftnets, resulting in higher-quality products that bring a higher price.
The bill now heads to the House of Representatives.###