California State Senate votes to ban driftnets for swordfishing

California has taken a key step in its effort to ban the use of drift gillnets and transition to a swordfish and thresher shark fishery that conservation groups claim would reduce the amount of bycatch.

Last week, the California State Senate voted 32-0 to prohibit the use of the large nets by 2023. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), also would compensate fishermen for their nets and provide incentives for them to purchase gear that is less likely to ensnare turtles, dolphins, and other marine life.

California is currently the only state in the country that allows driftnets for swordfish and thresher shark fishing off its coast.

"I am pleased the approach taken in SB 1017 to phase out the use of this damaging equipment earned broad bipartisan support in the Senate today,” Allen said. “I look forward to continuing to work with stakeholders on a plan that protects marine life while being fair to everyone involved.”

According to conservation groups, driftnets can kill or injure up to 70 different species. Fishermen deploy the mile-long nets overnight.

“We have been working to reduce the devastating and cruel impact of this driftnet fishery on whales, dolphins, and sea turtles for 20 years, and passage of this legislation will go a long way toward making the Pacific Ocean safer for endangered marine wildlife,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network.

Oceana, which also supports the effort, has been urging commercial fishermen to switch from nets to deep-set buoy gear. A six-year study shows the vertical line, which uses hooks set more than 800 feet deep, reduces interactions with non-targeted species. 

“Phasing out large mesh drift gillnets for new, cleaner fishing gears will maintain a domestic swordfish fishery that will safeguard ocean wildlife while benefiting seafood consumers, businesses, and fishermen,” said Geoff Shester, a senior scientist for Oceana.

The California bill has now moved to the California State Assembly, where it has yet to be assigned to a committee.

California’s federal lawmakers are also taking steps to ban driftnets as well.

On Wednesday, 6 June, U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California) teamed with U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania) to introduce the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act. It’s a companion bill to one filed in April by California’s Democratic U.S. Senators, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, along with U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia). The legislation would phase out driftnets within two years and requests NOAA officials create a more sustainable swordfish fishery. 

“The practice of drift gillnet fishing is an antiquated method of catching swordfish and sharks,” Lieu said. “Washington and Oregon already prohibit the use of large mesh drift gillnets because they are harmful to local ecosystems. It is past time to ensure that our precious marine wildlife is adequately protected by phasing out this inhumane, destructive, and wasteful practice.”

Photo courtesy of the International Game Fish Association


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