Friday, April 19, 2024

US Passes Federal Drift Gillnet Legislation


The US Congress recently passed the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act, which will phase out the use of gillnets in federal waters.

The legislation was included in the fiscal year 2023 omnibus government funding bill that was signed into law late last month.

Large mesh drift gillnets, which are between a mile and a mile-and-a-half (1.6km-2.4km) long and can extend 200 feet (61m) below the ocean surface, 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 are also regularly entangled in the large mesh net “walls,” injuring or killing them. Most of these animals, referred to as bycatch, are then discarded.

The use of large mesh drift gillnets by a single fishery based in California is responsible for 90 percent of the dolphins and porpoises killed along the West Coast and Alaska, according to a statement issued by US Senator Dianne Feinstein.

In 2018, California passed a four-year phase-out of large mesh drift gillnets in state waters to protect marine life. A majority of the driftnet fishermen have voluntarily participated in that phaseout. The Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act would extend similar protections to federal waters within five years and authorize the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help the commercial fishing industry transition to more sustainable gear types, including a grant program to supplement state funds.

According to Feinstein:

“I’m excited that our bill to phase out harmful drift gillnets was included in the omnibus government funding bill and is poised to become law. Large mesh drift gillnets kill indiscriminately, leaving a trail of dead or injured marine life behind. We must be better stewards of our oceans and fisheries. Federal waters off the coast of California are one of the last places these deadly nets are still being used. Our bill would finally remove them while helping the swordfishing industry transition to more sustainable and profitable alternatives.”

The bill would phase out the use of the nets and help the industry transition to more sustainable methods like deep-set buoy gear that uses a hook-and-buoy system. Deep-set buoy gear attracts swordfish with bait and alerts fishermen immediately when a bite is detected. Testing has shown that as much as 98 percent of animals caught with deep-set buoys are actually swordfish, resulting in far less bycatch than large mesh drift gillnets, which average a 50 percent catch rate of target species.

John Liang
John Liang
John Liang is the News Editor at He first got the diving bug while in High School in Cairo, Egypt, where he earned his PADI Open Water Diver certification in the Red Sea off the Sinai Peninsula. Since then, John has dived in a volcanic lake in Guatemala, among white-tipped sharks off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, and other places including a pool in Las Vegas helping to break the world record for the largest underwater press conference.