After President Trump vetoed a bill to phase out the West Coast drift gillnet swordfish gear in federal waters, sponsor Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., promised to reintroduce the measure.

In his veto message Jan. 1, Trump said U.S. fishermen using the large mesh drift gillnets are already highly regulated. Banning the gear would result in more foreign-caught swordfish, landed under less rigorous environmental standards, into the U.S. market, he said.

The Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act, sponsored by Feinstein and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., would set a five-year timetable for phasing out drift gillnets, and direct the National Marine Fisheries Service to assist fishermen in converting to new gear, such as deep-set buoy gear, with far less bycatch.

The lawmakers said drift gillnets that target swordfish and thresher sharks have unacceptable levels of bycatch, including federally protected marine mammals and sea turtles.

The bill would follow the lead of California, which in 2018 set a four-year schedule for phasing out the gear in state waters.

The gear is not allowed elsewhere in U.S. waters, and the limited-access fishery has been shrinking in recent years according to NMFS, from an estimated 150 participants in 1996 to 14 in 2020.

The gear typically consists of a 1,000-fathom net with stretched mesh size from 18 to 22 inches, with a 14-inch minimum size. “The net is set at dusk and allowed to drift during the night, with the fishing vessel typically attached at one end of the net,” according to a NMFS summary.

“The soak duration is typically 12-14 hours depending on length of the night.” The use of acoustic warning devices or pingers became a requirement in 1997 and significantly reduced entanglements with marine mammals, according to the agency.

Marine conservation and sportfishing groups have long pressed for elimination of the gear, and Feinstein said she would ring the proposal back on Capitol Hill immediately.

“There is not enough time to override the veto so 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,” said Feinstein.

Have you listened to this article via the audio player above?

If so, send us your feedback around what we can do to improve this feature or further develop it. If not, check it out and let us know what you think via email or on social media.

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for more than 30 years and a 25-year field editor for National Fisherman before joining our Commercial Marine editorial staff in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

Join the Conversation