Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act to Become Law

For Immediate Release: January 3, 2023

Contacts: Todd Steiner, Executive Director, (415) 663-8590, tsteiner@seaturtles.org

Scott Webb, Advocacy & Policy Director, (707) 921-8211, swebb@seaturtles.org

Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act to Become Law

The Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act, a bill to phase out the use of harmful large mesh drift gillnets in federal waters, was included in the 2023 Congressional Omnibus spending bill. The move will align state and federal policies to modernize California’s swordfish fishery.

“In the wake of the current biodiversity crisis, it is ever so encouraging to see our elected representatives pass bipartisan legislation to combat the threat to our oceans,” said Scott Webb, Advocacy & Policy Director with Turtle Island Restoration Network. “We are so grateful to Senator Feinstein for getting this over the finish line, this is definitely a day to celebrate!” 

Although Congress passed the bill in 2020 with overwhelming support, it was vetoed by President Trump on January 1, 2021, which left too little time to schedule an override vote.The bill was reintroduced in February 2021 by U.S. Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Large mesh driftnets more than a mile long are left in the ocean overnight to catch swordfish and thresher sharks but also indiscriminately capture, injure, and kill other marine wildlife. Species include whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, fish, and sharks. Most of these animals, referred to as “bycatch,” are then discarded. At least six endangered, threatened, or protected species are harmed by driftnets off the California coast.

Driftnets are invisible curtains of deaths that have indiscriminately killed and maimed whales, sea turtles and dolphins for decades off the coast of California, and it is a truly joyous season that the last days of this cruel fishery are ending with the passage of this bill,” said Todd Steiner, marine ecologist and Executive Director, Turtle Island Restoration Network.

The Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act will apply protections to federal waters within five years and authorize the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help the commercial fishing industry transition to more sustainable gear types like deep-set buoy gear that uses a hook-and-buoy system. Deep-set buoy gear attracts swordfish with bait and alerts fishermen immediately when a bite is detected. Testing has shown that as much as 98 percent of animals caught with deep-set buoys are swordfish, vastly less than large mesh drift gillnets, which average a 50 percent catch rate of target species.

In 2018, California passed a four-year phase-out of large mesh drift gillnets in state waters to protect marine life. The Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act would extend similar protections to federal waters within five years and authorize the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help the transition to more sustainable gear types, including a grant program to supplement state funds.

“Turtle Island Restoration Network has worked tirelessly for two decades through public education, litigation, and policy development to get to this day–a day when whales, dolphins and sea turtles are a bit safer off our coast.”

Large mesh drift gillnets are already banned in the U.S. territorial waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii. However, until the passage of this legislation, they had remained legal in federal waters off the coast of California. The United States is also a member of international agreements that ban large-scale driftnets in international waters.

Turtle Island Restoration Network has led a coalition of concerned citizens and partner organizations for nearly 20 years to stop the devastating impact this fishery has on ocean animals. The nonprofit’s efforts to end driftnets began when it sued the federal government in 2001 to prohibit drift gillnet fishing in leatherback sea turtle foraging grounds each year, shutting down 250,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean off California, Oregon, and Washington and reducing the number of leatherback deaths in the fishery.


Turtle Island Restoration Network is a global ocean conservation nonprofit with offices in California and Texas, whose mission is to inspire and mobilize people around the world to protect marine biodiversity and the oceans that sustain all life on Earth.