California Bans Giant Ocean Fishing Nets

  • Gill Net Bycatch

Used to catch swordfish, the giant nylon curtains often entangle dozens of other marine species

By Paul Rogers
Originally published in the East Bay Times

Ending years of controversy and debate, Gov. Jerry Brown late Thursday signed a new law phasing out the use of giant ocean fishing nets used to catch swordfish, but blamed for accidentally killing sea turtles, dolphins and other sea creatures.

The bill, SB 1017 by state Sen. Ben Allen, D-Redondo Beach, requires the state to set up a program to buy back nets and fishing permits from commercial fishermen who work in the state’s drift gill net fishery.

The nets — giant nylon curtains that can stretch one mile long and extend 100 feet underwater — are used mostly by fishermen between San Diego andBig Sur. Although they are intended to catch swordfish, thresher shark and opah, studies have shown that they entangle dozens of other marine species, including whales, dolphins, sea lions and sea turtles, fish and sharks. Those animals, known as bycatch, are often thrown back overboard, injured or dead.

“There is no longer room in our oceans for any fishery that throws away more than it keeps,” said Susan Murray, deputy vice president for Oceana, an environmental group with offices in Monterey that pushed for the new law.

Because of their impact on marine life, drift gill nets have been banned in other countries and states.

California is the last West Coast state to allow drift gill nets. Voters banned their use in state waters out to three miles offshore in 1990, but they remain legal beyond that in federal waters. Many other states already have banned them, including Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii.

Critics say there are other ways to catch swordfish, including using baited hooks attached to buoys. Last June, the Trump administration killed an Obama administration rule that would shut down the drift gill net fishery for two years if two sea turtles or large whales were killed or injured by the nets.

There are 20 commercial drift net boats left in California — down from 129 boats in 1994. Supporters of the industry note that federal and state rules, along with industry practices, have reduced the amount of bycatch by using nets with larger mesh openings 14 inches wide, placing electronic devices that send out pinging sounds to scare away dolphins, and other measures.

“All fisheries have some bycatch if you catch anything in numbers,” said Gary Burke, a Santa Barbara drift gill net fisherman, in a May interview with this news organization.

Banning the nets in California won’t stop demand for swordfish, he said. The fish now will come from other countries with fewer rules.

Under the new law, it will become illegal for California fishermen to transfer their drift gill net permits starting March 31, 2019. After that, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife is required to set up a program by March 31, 2020 to pay fishermen $10,000 for their permit. Active fishermen will be paid an $100,000 for surrendering their nets to the state for recycling and disposal.

The program will be funded with $1 million in donations from foundations and other organizations and $1 million in state funding.

Within four years of it being up and running, any remaining drift gill net permits will be revoked.

Contact Paul Rogers at 408- 920- 5045.