Last Remnant of Dirty Fishing Gear a Thing of the Past, Hopefully

  • Large-mesh drift gillnets that target swordfish off California’s coast are a passive method of commercial fishing in deep waters that entangles not only swordfish but also results in mortality of other important sportfish species, as well as marine mammals and sea turtles.
  • The Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act is a bipartisan bill that will eliminate the last of the large scale, antiquated drift gillnet fisheries in the U.S. and assist fishery participants in shifting to more targeted and efficient gear.
  • The bill was included as part of the House-passed America COMPETES Act, which is now being conferenced with the United States Innovation and Competition Act from the Senate.
  • The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF) is actively working to ensure the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act component of the COMPETES Act becomes law.

Why it matters: There are many forms of gear employed by commercial fisherman to harvest target species of fish. However, some gears such as large-mesh drift gillnets often result in unintended bycatch, most of which is discarded dead and left to waste. For this reason, large-mesh drift gillnets have been eliminated as a commercial gear off most of the U.S. coastline, save for California. Eliminating this last relic of an indiscriminate gear type and switching the swordfish fishery to cleaner gear has been a priority for CSF and our partners in the recreational fishing community.

The America COMPETES Act (H.R. 4521) passed the U.S. House of Representatives on February 4, which contained an amendment that included the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act (Tittle II of Division H). The Senate’s United States Innovation and Competition Act (S. 1260) was reported out of the Senate in June of last year. Although the Senate bill did not contain the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act (DMBRA), Congress has an opportunity to include it in the conference report when these two bills are negotiated and merged in the coming weeks.

The DMBRA will phase out the use of indiscriminate and wasteful large-mesh drift gillnets used in the swordfish fishery off the coast of California over a five-year period. Drift gillnets catch fish by entangling their fins and gills in the mesh as they try to swim through the net. However, they also entangle marine mammals and sea turtles. Other, more targeted gear, such as deep-set buoy gear, are more effective at specifically targeting swordfish and other commercially harvested species without the excessive bycatch and dead discards that result from the gillnet fishery.  If enacted, this legislation will complement a California state law passed in 2018 set to revoke state permits for the use of drift gillnets in 2024 and provides fishermen with financial assistance to switch to cleaner fishing gears.

The bill also includes a provision that will benefit Alaska’s halibut charter fishery. The Recreational Quota Entity (RQE) program authorizes a market-based mechanism to transfer Alaska halibut quota shares from the commercial fishing sector to the charter fishing sector. This provision is the last step in setting up this program to provide Alaska’s sportfishing fleet with additional access and fishing opportunities for charter boat anglers.

While the DMBRA was not included in the Senate’s U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, DMBRA has already passed the Senate under unanimous consent earlier in this Congress as S. 273. CSF has been actively encouraging members of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus who also serve on the conference committee to ensure the DMBRA is reported out and becomes law.

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