Large mesh driftnets (or gillnets) are huge tarps sometimes as long as 1.5 miles, left overnight under the ocean surface by commercial fisheries to catch permitted fish. Because they also catch a host of endangered species that get caught in them — such as dolphins and whales — their use has been outlawed in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, and in both the Pacific Ocean’s state and federal waters off of Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington state. The extraneous marine life the nets capture are considered “bycatch” and killed.
In 2018, California banned the nets specifically in state waters, with a phaseout scheduled for completion in 2023. That made *federal *waters off of California the only place off the U.S. coast where these nets still remain legal.
What the legislation would do
Introduced in the prior (116th) Congress, the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act would institute a five-year phaseout of large mesh driftnets in federal waters off of California.
Fittingly, the legislation was introduced in both chambers by a California representative and senator. The Senate version was introduced in March 2019 as bill number S. 906, by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). The House version was introduced concurrently as bill number H.R. 1979, by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA33).
What supporters say
Supporters argue the legislation protects endangered nautical species and completes a transition away from a harmful practice that has been largely phased out in other U.S. waters.
“California took the important first step to protect marine animals from large mesh driftnets off our coast and it’s imperative we now extend those protections into federal waters,” Sen. Feinstein said in a press release. “It’s heartbreaking that a single California fishery using this type of driftnet is killing more dolphins and porpoises than all other fisheries along the West Coast and Alaska combined. Our bipartisan bill will remove these harmful nets from all of California’s coastal waters and facilitate more sustainable fishing methods.”
“Drift gillnet fishing is an unsustainable, unnecessary method of catching swordfish and sharks,” Rep. Lieu said in a separate press release. “Taking care of our oceans by stopping this harmful practice will be essential if we want to mitigate and reverse damage to critical marine ecosystems. California has already taken an important step in banning drift net fishing in state waters, and it’s time for the Federal government to follow suit.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the legislation would harm the fishing industry and hurt businesses in that sector, not just large-scale ones but also including small businesses.
“In passing S. 906, the Congress has ignored the fact that the regional fishery management process has had strong, bipartisan support since its creation,” President Trump wrote in his official veto message. “By forcing the West Coast drift gillnet fishery to use alternative gear that has not been proven to be an economically viable substitute for gillnets, the Congress is effectively terminating the fishery.”
“As a result, an estimated 30 fishing vessels, all of which are operated by family-owned small businesses, will no longer be able to bring their bounty to shore,” Trump continued. “At a time when our nation has a seafood trade deficit of nearly $17 billion, S. 906 will exacerbate this imbalance.”
In July 2020, the Senate passed the bill by voice vote, a procedure used for relatively uncontroversial legislation in which no record of individual votes is cast.
In December 2020, the House passed it 283–105. Voting Democrats unanimously supported it 226–0, while Republicans mostly opposed it 56–105. One of California’s four voting Republican representatives crossed party lines in support: Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA25).
Sen. Feinstein acknowledged that Trump’s January 1 veto did not leave enough time for a potential congressional override, coming only one day before the last day of that Congress on January 2. She plans to reintroduce the bill again in the early days of the new Congress, which began on January 3.