The United States Senate passed the bipartisan Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act (S. 273), which would end the destructive use of drift gillnets to catch swordfish off California and Oregon. These mile-long, nearly invisible mesh nets drift overnight to capture swordfish, but often also entangle, injure, and kill whales, dolphins, sea lions, endangered sea turtles, sharks, and important non-targeted fish species. According to federal data, more dolphins were killed in this fishery in recent decades than all other observed U.S. West Coast and Alaska fisheries combined. The U.S. West Coast is the last place in the U.S. that still allows drift gillnets to catch swordfish, and large scale drift gillnets are also prohibited internationally on the high seas and in many other countries.
If signed into law, S.273 would phase out the use of large-scale drift gillnets nationwide and promote the adoption of cleaner fishing gear that reduces the incidental catch of marine wildlife. Following yesterday’s vote by the Senate, the bill now moves to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Oceana applauds the Senate for passing the bill and releases the following statement from Susan Murray, deputy vice president for the U.S. Pacific:
“It’s long past time to get these ‘Walls of Death’ out of our oceans. Oceana partnered with the State of California to provide a transition program for this fishery and the vast majority of the active fleet opted in to have a safe landing and switch to cleaner gears. The vote by the Senate gets us a step closer to ridding all of our nation’s ocean waters of these indiscriminate large mesh gillnets forever. With proven, cleaner ways to fish — such as deep-set buoy gear — we can have a sustainable swordfish fishery that does not needlessly injure and kill other ocean animals, like the humpback whale that was entangled last year.
We applaud the leadership of Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Shelley Moore-Capito (R- W.Va) and call upon leaders in the House of Representatives to bring this bill to a vote as soon as possible. Let’s get this done and make our oceans safer for whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and other animals while keeping a viable and sustainable fishery for swordfish.”
During the 2020-2021 fishing season, deep-set buoy gear caught eight times more swordfish than drift gillnets and did not catch any marine mammals or other protected species. Drift gillnets used during that same fishing season caught and discarded an estimated 2,238 marine animals for the 160 swordfish landed. Additionally, only 15% of drift gillnet fishing effort was observed despite prior recommendations by the Pacific Fishery Management Council for 100% monitoring of the fleet. Even with observer coverage at an all-time low, one humpback whale — listed on the Endangered Species Act — was recorded caught and released injured.
According to 2019 data by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Oceana estimates that transitioning the California swordfish fishery from drift gillnets to more sustainable methods of fishing will save at least 27 whales, 548 dolphins, 333 seals and sea lions, 24 sea turtles, and 70 seabirds over ten years.
In September of 2018 California enacted complementary state legislation to phase out the use of large-scale driftnet fishing for swordfish by establishing a voluntary transition program to incentivize fishermen to switch to cleaner gear types like deep-set buoy gear. The funding for the program has been raised, over half of the drift gillnet fishermen have already surrendered their nets and permits, and those nets are being destroyed and recycled into other products. To date, approximately 20 miles of drift gillnets have been turned in, permanently removing a huge hazard from the waters off California.
For more information about Oceana’s campaign to protect whales, sea turtles, and other ocean animals by transitioning away from deadly drift gillnets please visit www.oceana.org/StopTheNets.
Oceana is the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceana is rebuilding abundant and biodiverse oceans by winning science-based policies in countries that control one-third of the world’s wild fish catch. With more than 225 victories that stop overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, and the killing of threatened species like turtles and sharks, Oceana’s campaigns are delivering results. A restored ocean means that 1 billion people can enjoy a healthy seafood meal, every day, forever. Together, we can save the oceans and help feed the world. Visit USA.Oceana.org to learn more.