California Program Helps Phase Out Drift Gillnets to Protect Whales and Other Marine Species

Published Date:

Sacramento — In a step toward more sustainable fishing, a new California program helped 38 commercial fishermen retire large-mesh drift gillnets and adopt gear that better protects sea turtles, whales, and other sensitive marine species. The program, created by the California Legislature and implemented through regulations established by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), provides financial compensation to California commercial large-mesh drift gillnet fishermen who voluntarily turn in their nets and permits and switch to more selective fishing gear, including innovative deep-set buoy gear.

The transition program was established by Senate Bill 1017 — bi-partisan legislation authored by Senator Ben Allen and signed into law in 2018. The bill also required that all California large-mesh drift gillnet permits be surrendered or revoked as of January 31 of the fourth year after an initial $2 million in funding had been secured.

In 2020, the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) provided $1 million, as dictated by SB 1017, and the environmental non-profit Oceana contributed another $1 million in private funds. This established a January 31, 2024, deadline to revoke all remaining California large-mesh drift gillnet permits.

In 2021, the Fiscal Year 2021-22 Budget Act provided the remaining $1.3 million in the state budget ensuring that all fishermen who had indicated their desire to participate could receive transition funding. Fishermen holding permits had until October 28, 2022, to complete the steps necessary to voluntarily participate in the program. The program successfully resulted in:

  • 38 California state drift gillnet permit holders participating in the program
  • $2.7 million provided to these fishermen to incentivize the switch to more selective fishing gear
  • More than 50 miles and 54 tons of large-mesh drift gillnets destroyed, to be recycled into new products

“These massive, damaging, archaic nets have run their course and shouldn’t have a role to play in the fishing industry’s future when there are safer, sustainable alternatives,” said Senator Ben Allen, who chairs the California Legislative Environmental Caucus and the state Senate’s Environmental Quality Committee. “California acted to end the use of this destructive gear, but without similar action by federal authorities, fishermen who did not participate in the state transition program can continue to use drift gillnets in US waters.”

State waters extend from the coast to three miles out. Federal waters are three to 200 miles offshore.

The large-mesh drift gillnets surrendered as part of the program are sent to certified net destruction entities where they will be recycled into other products. One such company, Ventura-based Bureo, turns discarded fishing nets into skateboards, sunglasses, board shorts, and baseball caps. The company will be releasing a new product made specifically from California large-mesh drift gillnets turned in through the state’s transition program.

“This is big progress that will protect turtles, whales and other marine animals that have been caught and killed in these harmful nets,” said California Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot. “Helping our fishing industry transition to safer, more environmentally sustainable gear is a win-win. It helps commercial fishing operations modernize their operations and sustain their businesses while protecting precious ecosystems off the California coast. Now it is important that federal policies are updated to make this critical transition in federal waters off our coast.”

The outcome of California’s drift gillnet transition program comes as the Pacific Fishery Management Council — a 14-member body that makes recommendations to the National Marine Fisheries Service — considers imposing strict limits on the number of marine mammals and sea turtles that can be accidentally taken by the drift gillnet fishery during a specific period.

Additionally, federal legislation is pending in Congress that would align with California law to phase out federal permits issued for the gear type. The California Fish and Game Commission has expressed support for federal legislation that is complementary and consistent with California’s program to transition to more sustainable and selective fishing gears.

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