CONGRESS FINALIZES THE END OF DRIFT GILLNETS IN U.S. OCEANS

Theresa LabriolaTheresa Labriola, Pacific Program Director

December 26, 2022

In the final days of 2022, Congress sunsetted the last remaining large mesh drift gillnet fishery in the United States.  At a time when few issues find consensus, the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act found support from a diverse coalition of sport fishermen, recreational fishing businesses, ocean conservationists and wildlife advocates. Drift gillnets, each with a reach as wide as the Golden Gate Bridge, have an outsized impact on the open ocean ecosystem. Over the past four decades, the nets caught countless whales, endangered sea turtles and valuable sportfish, including marlin. Now, it will yield to innovative, sustainable fishing gear.

“In the 20th century, humanity demonstrated it could dominate and indeed overfish the ocean ecosystem as the apex predator. Our challenge in the 21st century is to prove we can co-exist as an ocean predator and restore balance with innovation and restraint,” said Theresa Labriola, Wild Oceans Pacific Program Director. To this end, Wild Oceans has not merely focused on the elimination of the bad, but the adoption of sustainable commercial fishing gear.

Wild Oceans has worked with the State of California, Pacific Fishery Management Council, National Marine Fisheries Service and Congress to remove indiscriminate gear from Pacific waters. In 2018, we coordinated with the California legislature and our conservation and sportfishing allies to pass legislation to phase-out California state drift gillnet permits. On November 30, we sent a letter signed by 21 local, national, and international sportfishing organizations to Congressional leadership voicing our unanimous support for legislation to close the gear loophole by ending the federal permit for large mesh drift gillnets. 

Wild Oceans has supported authorization of deep-set buoy gear and the prioritization of research into innovative gear development, specifically gear that reduces the needless waste of ocean resources. Species-specific gear makes management easier and less costly and allows fishermen to take advantage of fishing resources with less impact on ocean structure and function, thus maintaining ecosystem resiliency. 

Decades ago, when the California legislature first permitted drift gillnet gear, recreational fishermen marched on Sacramento, demanding that the legislature “Ban the Nets.” They had heard the story of destruction that lay in the gear’s wake, and they worried about its impact on California’s oceans and sportfishing. The 1990 Magnuson Stevens Act Reauthorization banned nets longer than 1.5 miles inside the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, and multi-mile high-seas nets were eventually banned worldwide, but the shorter nets were still set off California. Large scale drift gillnets have been prohibited in the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska and the Hawaiian Archipelago and dozens of nations have banned the gear. The Pacific fishery was a holdout. 

Ken Hinman, former President of Wild Oceans, commented, “with this legislation, US coastal waters are finally free of this destructive gear. It’s one more big step toward our goal of clean, eco-friendly fishing.” 

Due to drift gillnet gear’s ability to catch everything that crossed its path, it required constant regulation to constrict and constrain it in time and space. Notwithstanding the many management measures and reduced fishing effort, this fishery continued to interact with protected species. In 2021, despite a relatively small fleet with low observer coverage, federal observers documented the catch of two humpback whales. 

We are turning the tide. The Pacific swordfish fishery has a chance to reinvent itself as a sustainability leader and to export gear ingenuity. At the same time, the United States can prohibit the importation of fish caught with drift gillnets, thereby decreasing its use elsewhere. It’s a win-win for commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, and our oceans. 

Wild Oceans focusses on keeping  oceans wild to achieve a vibrant future for fishing by building coalitions and engaging in marine fisheries management using science, law and ecosystem based solutions. We’d like to thank all of our coalition partners who we have worked with creativity, patience and determination to end the use of drift gillnets.

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