The Unintended Consequences of Driftnets

Congress Should Outlaw Use in Federal Waters

Sea turtles, dolphins, and whales — like this pilot whale — are too often caught and killed in driftnets. | Credit: NOAA

The California coastline is the most beautiful in the country. Its waters are ecologically rich, home to majestic marine animals like sea turtles, dolphins, and whales.

The federal waters off California’s coast are also one of the last places where deadly large-mesh driftnets are still used to catch swordfish.

These nets can stretch longer than a mile. Sadly, they don’t discriminate between swordfish and other marine animals, and they kill whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and other species. These unintended catches, known as bycatch, would normally be released back into the ocean, but often they’re dead by the time fishing boats reach the nets.

The indiscriminate death or injury caused by these large-mesh driftnets is so severe that they’re banned in federal waters in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, as well as off the coasts of Washington, Alaska and Hawaii.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein

California passed legislation two years ago making driftnets illegal in state waters, but congressional action is still needed to remove them from federal waters off our coast, the only place where driftnets remain legal in the United States.

Only one fishery in California, consisting of fewer than active 20 boats, still uses these driftnets. However, these nets are so disproportionally destructive that this one fishery has been responsible for 90 percent of the dolphins and porpoises killed along the West Coast and Alaska, according to NOAA.

A 2018 National Marine Fisheries Service study estimated that from 2001 to 2016, more than 1,600 protected marine animals — including large whales, dolphins, and sea turtles — were caught in that one fishery’s driftnets.

There is no reason to continue allowing the carnage of large-mesh driftnets in our waters, especially as there are better, more sustainable methods to catch swordfish.

Deep-set buoy gear is an alternative method that targets swordfish specifically and drastically reduces the amount of bycatch. It uses a hook-and-buoy system that attracts swordfish with bait. When a bite is detected, the buoy alerts fishermen immediately.

Testing in federal waters off the California coast has shown that 98 percent of animals caught with deep-set buoys are swordfish, meaning there is far less bycatch than driftnets. 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 caught sustainably that fetch a higher price for fishermen.

Over the years there have been significant improvements in the deep-set buoy gear and it now outperforms driftnets. 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 driftnets.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council unanimously voted last year to authorize the use of deep-set buoys in federal waters off the coast of California to catch swordfish. Hopefully, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Commerce will formally approve that authorization soon.

But we need to move faster to remove harmful large-mesh driftnets from our waters and help fishermen transition to more sustainable methods. That’s why in 2019 I, along with Senator Shelley Moore Capito, introduced the bipartisan Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act.

The Senate unanimously passed our bill last year, and the House passed it shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, then-President Trump, citing debunked myths and misinformation, unnecessarily vetoed the bill at the last minute, leaving no time to schedule a veto override vote.

We reintroduced the bill this year and hopefully, Congress will quickly pass it and send it to President Biden’s desk for his signature.

The bottom line is that we simply can’t accept the status quo any longer. With the many challenges facing our oceans and all the benefits oceans provide for us, there is no reason to continue the use of fishing gear that is outperformed and outmoded any longer.

We cannot afford to risk our marine life with the continued use of large-mesh driftnets when a viable alternative exists. We can preserve and in fact improve the economically important swordfish industry while we protect sea life.


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