The Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act, included in the Federal Spending Bill, has passed the House and Senate and is being sent to the President for his signature today.
After 10 years of lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act and negotiations with fisheries managers and fishermen, the swordfish (and Thresher shark) commercial fishery off Southern California will be phased out for more sustainable gear with the passage of the Federal Spending Bill. The last drift gillnet fishery in US waters, this fishery was grandfathered as art of white shark protections in 1993, and is responsible for killing thousands of seabirds, marine mammals and sharks. The nets entangle and drown air breathers such as the endangered leatherback sea turtle, but also fish, especially blue and mako sharks but also protected great white sharks that pup in the same waters.
Reintroduced in 2021 by Senator Diane Feinstein, HR 404 will ban large mesh drift gillnets off the US west coast.
The Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act, a bill to phase out large mesh drift gillnets used in federal waters off the coast of California has reintroduced by U.S. Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) passed through the Senate and on December 23, 2022 has passed through the house with a majority mostly along party lines.
This fishery, responsible for the annual killing of thousands of innocent seabirds, marine mammals and sharks in California waters and is the only fishery where these harmful nets are still used in the United States. Congress passed the bill in with overwhelming bipartisan support but it was vetoed by President Trump on January 1, 2021. The Spending Bill has been passed onto President Biden’s desk to fund the government in the next year and it is expected to recieve his signature. The $1.7 Trillion dollar bill includes $858 billion in military spending, including nearly $50 billion earmarked for Ukraine’s war against Russia. The driftnet bill has funding to buy out gear and assist fishermen impacted by the driftnet ban.
Large mesh driftnets are more than a mile long and 250 feet deep with mesh greater than 14 inches. The nets are left in the ocean overnight to catch swordfish and thresher sharks but also indiscriminately capture, injure, and kill other marine species including whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, fish, and sharks. Most of these animals, referred to as “bycatch,” are then discarded, yet many species like tuna but also thresher and mako sharks are retained. Over half the catch in this fishery is discarded or dead blue sharks.
The use of driftnets by this California based fishery is responsible for 90 percent of the dolphins and porpoises killed along the West Coast and Alaska. At least six endangered, threatened, or protected species are harmed by driftnets off the California coast. 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 like deep-set buoy gear that uses a hook-and-buoy system.
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 authorizes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to assist the commercial fishermen in a transition to more sustainable gear types like deep-set buoy gear that uses a hook-and-buoy system.
Deep-set buoy gear and harpoon have the lowest rates of discarded bycatch at 2 percent and 0 percent, respectively, while pelagic longlines have a 44 percent rate.
Of all methods used to harvest swordfish, drift gillnets have the highest rates of discarded bycatch. Over a period of approximately ten years, the DGN fishery average 64 % discarded bycatch.
Testing has shown that 94 percent of animals caught with deep-set buoys are swordfish, resulting in far less bycatch than drift gillnets.
In 1989 the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) placed a moratorium on the practice of drift net fishing. In 1992 the UN banned the use of drift nets longer than 2.5 km long in international 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 still remain legal in federal waters off the coast of California.
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.