Trump Vetoes Ban on Driftnet Fishing

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Sea turtles, including loggerheads (above) and endangered leatherbacks, are among the common bycatch species for large-mesh driftnets off California (Alexandre Roux / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Published Jan 4, 2021 10:34 PM by The Maritime Executive

President Donald Trump has vetoed a bill that would have phased out large-mesh drift gillnets in federal waters. In his veto message, he suggested that the bill would increase reliance on imported seafood, worsen the trade deficit and "not achieve its purported conservation benefits." 

Driftnets are prone to a high rate of bycatch, including protected marine mammals and sea turtles. In the U.S., the nets are used exclusively by about 20 vessels to catch swordfish and sharks in federal waters off the coast of California. Swordfish is the primary target species, but it only accounts for about one out of eight animals caught by the nets, according to the nonprofit Turtle Island Restoration Network. An estimated two thirds of all animals caught are discarded, including about 60 whales and dolphins per year - more cetacean mortality than all other West Coast fisheries combined.

The Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act, sponsored by Sen. Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), would have phased out driftnets and helped affected fishermen to acquire deep-set buoy gear. Deep-set buoy fishing involves deploying a trio of buoys connected to one extra-long line, which hangs down to 1,000 feet of water depth - the region where swordfish spend the daylight hours. By fishing deep and frequently tending their buoys, fishermen can catch high-quality swordfish without landing shallow-swimming sea turtles and dolphins, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. 

The bill had rare support for any legislation introduced in a deeply divided Congress: it passed the House by a margin of 283-105, and the Senate passed it by voice vote with no objections. It was also unusual for a lack of extraneous amendments and unrelated provisions (aside from a new fee for recreational halibut fishing in Alaska). 

“Let me be clear: This bill passed the Senate unanimously. It passed the House with overwhelming support. California banned the nets in state waters. There is broad support for this proposal and the president’s veto was irresponsible," said Sen. Feinstein in a statement. “I will reintroduce this bill on the first day of the new Congress and will push for quick enactment once President Biden is in office.”