California’s U.S. senators introduce driftnet modernization legislation

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Three U.S. senators – including both from California – formerly introduced a bill in Washington, D.C. to protect California marine life from drift gillnets.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, Kamala Harris, D-California, and Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, proposed the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act (S. 2773) in an effort to phase out large-scale driftnet fishing practices and phase in “alternate fishing practices that minimize the incidental catch of living marine resources.”

S. 2773 would allow the federal government to spend up to $450,000, for each fiscal year between 2018 and 2020, to address the reduction of driftnets.

“The driftnets, which can be more than a mile long, are left in the ocean overnight to catch swordfish and thresher sharks. However, at least 60 other marine species, including whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, fish and sharks, can also become entangled in the large mesh nets, injuring or killing them,” a released statement from Feinstein’s office stated. “Most of these animals, referred to as bycatch, are discarded.”

Large mesh driftnets are currently legal to use in California, according to the offices of Feinstein and Capito. Other states and regions, however, have already banned the use of such mechanisms in their waters. Large mesh driftnets are specifically outlawed in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, as well as off the coasts of Alaska, Hawai’i, Oregon and Washington state.

A few international agreements – which include the United States as a party – also ban the use of 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 [NOAA] to develop a program to help fisheries transition to more sustainable methods,” a joint statement issued by Feinstein and Capito said.

S. 2773 reportedly has the support of groups such as Coastal Conservation Association of California, the International Game Fish Association and American Sportfishing Association.

Drift gillnets are invisible nets set several yards deep underwater and can be stretched up to one-mile in length. The nets are used to catch swordfish.

NOAA’s West Coast Fisheries explains the drift gillnet as “an unanchored panel of stretched mesh (14 inches or greater) suspended vertically in the water by floats along the top and weights along the bottom.”

“Regulations require large mesh drift gillnets fishing off the West Coast to be equipped with acoustic pingers and extenders,” the NOAA Fisheries’ explanation continued.

A joint press release issued by Coastal Conservation Association of California, the International Game Fish Association, American Sportfishing Association and Wild Oceans stated the United Nations banned large-scale driftnets in the late 1990s.

“The U.S. has banned drift nets of any size in the east coast fisheries, and the European Union disallowed drift netting among its 27 member states in 2002,” the joint press release continued. “Recent efforts by the Pacific Fishery Management Council to limit bycatch in the California swordfish fishery have failed, thus necessitating a legislative solution.”

Alternatives to driftnets do exist, according to Coastal Conservation Association of California, the International Game Fish Association and American Sportfishing Association.

“One such emerging method is buoy-gear, used by swordfish fishermen in Florida for over a decade, supplying a high-value product with virtually no bycatch,” the groups stated in their joint statement. “It’s been so popular with commercial fishermen that a pilot buoy-gear study is underway in the Gulf of Mexico, where longline bycatch of breeding bluefin is a threat to that severely overfished tuna’s recovery.

“And off California, more than 60 fishermen have applied for permits to use the experimental gear,” the joint statement continued. “The legislation will not only eliminate use of indiscriminate gear, but support the switch to innovative gear, like deep-set buoy gear.”

The Feinstein-Harris-Capito proposal aims to restrict California’s driftnet use by 2020.

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