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Bipartisan Bill to End Lethal Driftnet Fishery in the United States

HR 404 would ban large mesh drift gillnets off the 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.) has passed the Senate and has gone onto the House.  

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.

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.