Bill to Ban California Driftnets Hits the Senate Floor

Bipartisan bill would ban all drift gillnets by 2020

Bill to Ban California Driftnets Hits the Senate Floor
A wide range of marine species, including whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, fish and sharks, become entangled in the large mesh nets.Courtesy NOAA

Three United States senators – two from California and one from West Virginia – have introduced a bipartisan bill that would phase out the use of harmful large mesh driftnets off the coast of California by commercial fishermen. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) have sponsored the federal Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act.

“The use of commercial driftnets to target swordfish harms too many endangered or protected marine animals and should be phased out,” said Feinstein, the senior senator from California. “It’s unacceptable that a single California fishery that uses this type of driftnet is killing more dolphins and porpoises than the rest of the West Coast combined. Our bipartisan bill will remove harmful large mesh driftnets from our oceans and encourage more sustainable fishing methods.”

Offshore drift gillnets, also known as driftnets, can be more than a mile long and are left in the ocean overnight to catch swordfish and thresher sharks. However, a wide range of other marine species, including whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, fish and sharks, also become entangled in the large mesh nets, injuring or killing them. This so-call bycatch is usually discarded.

Bill to Ban California Driftnets Hits the Senate Floor
If the bipartisan bill is passed, the use of driftnets would be phased out in all U.S. waters by 2020.Courtesy NOAA

“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,” Capito said. “This bipartisan legislation will help ensure large mesh driftnets are no longer used in any U.S. waters, protecting our marine wildlife from this harmful practice.”

In the United States, large mesh driftnets are already banned in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, as well as off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii. However, they remain legal 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 phases out the use of large mesh driftnets in all U.S. waters by 2020 and authorizes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop a program to help fisheries transition to more sustainable methods such as deep-set hook-and-buoy systems. The bill is, in part, a response to the Trump administration's rejection a rule last year that would have increased accountability in the California swordfish fishery.

“We must protect the well-being of marine wildlife and ensure it is not jeopardized by the presence of driftnets, and the unintended consequences left in their wake,” said Harris. “California has a responsibility to the nation to provide a prosperous coast for these species which play a vital role in the development of sustainable fisheries.”