On Sept. 27, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that will make swordfish fishing more sustainable by banning the industry’s use of driftnets in state waters.
The new law will phase out the large-scale driftnets used to catch swordfish, institute a buyout program, and incentivize the use of more sustainable fishing methods, conservation group Oceana reports. The California Driftnet Fishery, which harvests swordfish on a majority of the state’s coast, is the only U.S. fishery still utilizing the harmful nets, according to National Geographic.
The new law will effectively reform this fishery, and in doing so reforms the state’s swordfish industry. The new regulations are a crucial development in sustainable fishing, in light of a 2016 report by the Turtle Island Restoration Network finding that swordfish accounted for less than half of the animals caught in the fishery’s driftnets over the past decade. This means that a majority of animals caught were bycatch, non-target species including whales, dolphins, sharks, seals, and turtles. Most animals caught in driftnets do not survive, and bycatch is usually thrown overboard dead or dying.
The reason that driftnets kill so indiscriminately is that their outdated design does not ensnare only targeted species. Often the length of the Golden Gate Bridge, these nets hang in the ocean like an invisible wall, entangling anything that swims too close.
“These driftnets are over a mile long, 100 feet deep, and designed to kill everything in their path,” Paul Nicklen, co-founder of conservation group SeaLegacy, stated on their website. The lack of nuance with which driftnets kill makes the California swordfish industry one of the most unsustainable and environmentally damaging, according to Nicklen.
A new fishing method called deep-set buoy gear has proven to out-perform driftnets while minimizing bycatch, meaning there is no excuse to continue the use of driftnets, Oceana reports.
The negative impact that the swordfish industry has on the marine ecosystem was brought to the attention of the public in April by a video of behind-the-scenes footage of the industry created by Nicklen’s team at SeaLegacy. The group’s subsequent petition to stop the use of driftnets collected over 115,000 signatures, giving the momentum needed to encourage state politicians to prioritize the creation of new legislation regulating the industry.
The newly enacted law is an important step in demanding sustainable practices from the fishing industry and bringing California up to environmental standard. The United Nations instituted a ban on driftnet usage in the high seas in 1992, and the remainder of the West Coast of America is also protected from fishing with driftnets by laws in Oregon and Washington.
In a press release, Oceana’s Deputy Vice President Susan Murray applauded the progress made by the new legislation: “This is literally an enormous net benefit for endangered whales, sea turtles and other marine life, as well as to responsible fishermen, coastal communities and seafood consumers. There is no longer room in our oceans for any fishery that throws away more than it keeps.”