Large-mesh drift gillnets, which for decades have killed more dolphins, whales, and porpoises than all other West Coast fisheries combined, are finally on the verge of being banned from federal waters. The 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act, signed by President Joe Biden yesterday, includes provisions phasing out this destructive gear and providing financial assistance for the commercial swordfish fleet to switch to more selective fishing methods, such as deep-set buoy gear. The reforms were originally part of the bipartisan Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act, sponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV).
The measure is the result of decades of efforts by conservation groups, recreational fishing organizations, and others to curtail the use of drift gillnets. California’s swordfish fleet throws more marine life overboard—much of it dead or dying—than it keeps because of the indiscriminate nature of drift gillnets, which is why these nets have been banned everywhere else in the United States for years.
California passed similar legislation phasing out the use of drift gillnets in 2018 and is helping its commercial swordfish fleet transition to more selective fishing gear under a public-private partnership established by the state law. Congress and the California Legislature both passed measures addressing these issues because the California commercial swordfish fleet is required to have both state and federal permits.
Meanwhile, deep-set buoy gear, developed and tested with financial assistance from The Pew Charitable Trusts, has proved effective at catching swordfish and significantly reducing bycatch. In thousands of hours of on-the-water trials, buoy gear’s bycatch rate averages just 2% compared with averages of 50% or more for drift gillnets. The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees fishing for more than 100 species off the West Coast, authorized commercial use of deep-set buoy gear in September 2019. Several commercial swordfish boats are using it under provisional permits while they wait for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service to issue the final regulations, expected within the next year.
The new legislation and the phase-out of drift gillnets—which is expected to be complete by 2028—heralds a more sustainable West Coast swordfish fishery and a safer future for dolphins, whales, porpoises, and other Pacific Ocean wildlife.
Jos Hill is a project director and Gilly Lyons is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life in the United States project.