California assembly passes driftnet ban, bill heads to governor's desk

A bill that would end the use of drift gillnets for harvesting swordfish and thresher sharks in California now only needs the governor’s signature to become law.

Last week, the California Assembly voted 78-0 to pass SB 1017, which calls for eliminating the controversial nets over a four-year period. The nation’s most populous state is also the only one that still allows the use of the nets to collect swordfish and thresher sharks.

In June, the bill passed the state senate by a 33-0 margin.

Under the bill, the state would create a transition program by 31 March, 2020, to enable driftnet permit holders to use alternative gear. The transition program would include a buyout program created through a public-private partnership. Fishermen must surrender their nets in order to get compensation.

“Finally we have found a way to phase out their use and transition to a more humane alternative – without harming the commercial fishing industry in the process,” said State Senator Ben Allen, the bill’s sponsor. “This is a significant win for our ocean and for the California economy. We look forward to the governor signing it into law.”

According to data from NOAA Fisheries, there are approximately less than 20 active license holders using driftnets in California. 

Conservation groups have long opposed the use of the mile-long, nearly invisible nets because they have been known to kill or injure dozens of other marine species, including whales, sea lions, and turtles. According to Oceana, the nets are responsible for killing more dolphins that all other American west coast fisheries.

“It’s time for California to join the rest of the country and discontinue the use of swordfish drift gillnets, which are one of the most indiscriminate ways to fish,” said Susan Murray, deputy vice president of the U.S. Pacific for Oceana. “There is no reason to continue using this destructive gear when there are proven alternatives, such as deep-set buoy gear, that safeguard marine wildlife while still benefitting fishermen and seafood consumers.”

Similar legislation is making its way through Congress in Washington. In addition, last week NOAA Fisheries officially enacted a ban on Mexican seafood caught using the nets in the Gulf of California. The federal government was ordered to enact the ban after a U.S. Court of International Trade judge issued a temporary injunction in July as part of a lawsuit to save the vaquita, a marine mammal that experts fear may become extinct within three years.


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