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Passage of Driftnet Modernization Act Will End Deadly California Fishery

Bill Will Protect Marine Life, Eliminate Deadly Gear Fishing for Swordfish in West Coast Waters and Save Sharks and Encourages Shift to More Sustainable Fishing

Contact: David McGuire: info@sharkstewards

On February 21, 2021 the  Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act was  re-introduced into the Senate, led by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.). Following a veto in 2019 by former president Trump, the bill will end the destructive use of large-mesh drift gillnets in U.S. ocean waters and save countless whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and sharks as well as sportfish. These mile-long, nearly invisible nets drift overnight to catch swordfish off California, but entangle, injure and kill more than 70 other species of marine life. According to federal data, more dolphins are killed in the California drift gillnet fishery than all other observed U.S. West Coast and Alaska fisheries combined. Companion legislation (H.R. 404)  was introduced in the House last month by Representatives Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.). 


The federal legislation will prohibit the use of large mesh drift gillnets in United States federal waters (out to 200 miles from shore) in five years and promote the adoption of cleaner fishing gear that reduces the incidental catch of marine wildlife. California recently established a transition program where fishermen can receive funding for turning in their nets and permits. Led by the non-profit Oceana, this federal legislation authorizes the government to provide additional funding to fishermen to facilitate this transition to cleaner methods, namely deep-set buoy gear. Deep-set buoy gear uses hooks set during the daytime that selectively catch swordfish and are actively checked by fishermen, as opposed to a large net left unattended for hours like a drift gillnet. The actively tended gear not only greatly reduces harm to wildlife but also leads to higher quality swordfish. The gear type has been successfully proven to be profitable and sustainable, resulting in its authorization in 2019 by the Pacific Fishery Management Council. Drift gillnet fishermen who participate in the transition program will be first in line for new federal deep-set buoy gear permits.

In 2020, deep-set buoy gear caught four times more swordfish than drift gillnets and garnered a 62% higher price per pound due to the quality of the fish and sustainability of the gear. According to landing data from the Pacific Fisheries Information Network, drift gillnets caught 19.8 metric tons of swordfish in 2020 at an average ex vessel price of $3.62/lb worth a total of $157,728. Deep-set buoy gear caught 79.4 metric tons of swordfish at an average of $5.88/lb worth a total of $1,028,932. All deep-set buoy catch was caught with Exempted Fishing Permits.   

Conversely, large mesh drift gillnets throw overboard more wildlife than what is kept and due to their wasteful nature, these nets are banned in many places around the world. Ocean waters off California and Oregon are the last places in the U.S. where large mesh drift gillnets are still allowed. 

Congress passed similar legislation last year by unanimous consent of the Senate and a bi-partisan majority of the House of Representatives. However, President Trump vetoed the bill in the final hours of the last Congressional session.

“Senators Dianne Feinstein and Shelley Moore Capito have demonstrated leadership for ocean health by introducing protection to ensure our wildlife is safe by removing these walls fo death. These large-mesh drift gillnets have been killing tens of thousands of blue sharks, seabirds, even endangered sperm whales and leatherback sea turtles.  The reintroduction of this bill that had passed through both bodies of Congress but killed by former demonstrates the increasing momentum toward the ultimate end to harmful drift gillnets and demonstrates USA leadership in managing our fisheries.”

In response to the bill introduction, Oceana released the following statement from Susan Murray, deputy vice president for the U.S. Pacific:

“With proven alternatives like deep-set buoy gear that allow for the catching of swordfish without arbitrarily catching and killing so many other animals, it’s long past time to get these ‘Walls of Death’ out of our oceans. The fact that many drift gillnet fishermen are already voluntarily choosing to fish with deep-set buoy gear is further evidence it is an economically viable alternative. Last year fishermen caught four times more swordfish with deep-set buoy gear than with drift gillnets and received more money per pound for their catch. Promoting this innovative solution will increase our domestic supply of sustainable seafood benefiting local West Coast fishermen and communities.”

“Additionally, nearly all of the remaining active drift gillnet fishermen have already signaled their intent to participate in the transition program. Tens of thousands of U.S. residents have called for large mesh drift gillnets to be permanently pulled from ocean waters to protect wildlife; and sportfishermen, businesses, chefs, and state and federal officials have fervently supported such action over the years. The Fisheries Service’s refusal to implement recommendations of the Pacific Fishery Management Council to reduce and monitor bycatch, and former President Trump’s foolish veto of this bill last session despite overwhelming bi-partisan Congressional support means it is time for Congress to redouble its efforts to phase out swordfish drift gillnets once and for all. We urge Congress to expeditiously pass these bills with the same overwhelming support as was demonstrated in the last Congress and send these bills to President Biden for his signature.”

More information on large-mesh drift gillnets used to catch swordfish and Oceana’s campaign work to protect whales, sea turtles and other animals can be found here