Gov. Brown Approves California Ban on Controversial Fishing Gear Known as ‘Drift Gillnets'

Drift gillnets have been the subject of a series of reports by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit since 2016

A controversial type of fishing net, blamed for killing endangered sea life off the California coast, will officially be banned beginning January 2023, according to legislation Gov. Jerry Brown signed on Thursday. 

The fishing gear, known as drift gillnets, can stretch more than a mile long and are mainly used to catch swordfish. The nets, however, have been blamed for killings thousands of other sea creatures, including dolphins, sea lions, and whales.

On Thursday, just three days before the deadline to approve or veto the legislation, Brown signed Senate Bill 1017, which requires drift gillnets be phased out by January 2023.  

The California Legislature overwhelmingly backed the legislation. The Senate passed the measure 36-1, while the Assembly voted 78-0 in support of the bill.

The new law requires the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop a “transition program” to help fishermen switch to alternative fishing gear.  Critics argue newer methods are far less profitable and, thus, not sustainable. 

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit first uncovered the environmental impact in 2016 after obtaining and analyzing 25 years-worth of federal inspection reports, which detailed the frequency and specific type of sea creatures caught and killed in drift gillnets.

Over the past 28 years, drift gillnets have entangled and killed an estimated 4,000 dolphins, 456 whales and 136 sea turtles, according to government data obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization. The federal agency, which regulates the fishing gear, randomly places observers on about 20 percent of all fishing trips that utilize the gear in an effort to document the environmental impact.

California fishermen view the ban as extreme and unnecessary and believe their livelihoods are being unfairly targeted. Without the fishing gear, they fear they won’t be able to continue making a living.

“I don’t know what I’d do,” said Mike Flynn, who has depended on drift gillnets to catch swordfish for the past 40 years. Flynn spoke to the Investigative Unit in August. “There’s very few of us left, and we don’t seem to have a chance ... we're being villainized, unjustly."

Only about 20 fishermen actively use the gear off the California coast; that's down from 141 active permits at the peak back in 1990, according to NOAA.

As part of the new law, fishermen can receive up to $110,000 to quit the industry if they enter into an agreement by January 2020 to retire their nets.  Those who chose to not to participate will still be required to stop using the fishing gear within the next four years.


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