Austen Brown started fishing commercially with his father off California’s coast when he was only 8 years old. By the time he was 13, Austen was making his own living as a fisherman, and he has spent the past few decades fishing for everything from codfish to shark. But perhaps his favorite target is the elusive swordfish. A popular choice among seafood diners, swordfish are most effectively caught using large drift gillnets that hang in the deep ocean.
The swordfish is also a favorite catch for Chris Williams, who has spent more than 40 years plying his commercial fishing trade off the California coast, including targeting swordfish with drift gillnets. Chris and his wife Dania usually sell his catch at Fresh Fish Fanatics, their family-owned business in Oxnard. The Williamses hope to one day leave the business to their three children, who have already begun helping to run it.
These stories are typical. Commercial fishing is often a family affair, with multiple generations working together to support a small business. And for those who love the freedom of the outdoors and the thrill of the hunt, fishing can provide a satisfying career. But recent California legislation threatens to eliminate the drift gillnet industry entirely.
In 2018, California approved a law designed to ban the use of drift gillnets by the year 2024. The law was championed by environmentalists who claim that drift gillnets pose a special risk to threatened sea creatures like whales and sea turtles. But they are mistaken. Existing federal and state regulations like seasonal closures and the required use of acoustic pingers on drift gillnets have already reduced accidental catch of protected species to almost nothing. But for some environmental hard-liners in Sacramento, a symbolic political victory is more important than facts on the ground (or in this case, in the water).
Tragically, California’s drift gillnet ban comes at the expense of the fishermen and their families who will be put out of business for no good reason. And for an industry that has already seen many participants leave due to oppressive state and federal regulation, California’s ban threatens to eliminate one of the last good options to make a living as a commercial fisherman.
Pacific Legal Foundation has challenged California’s ban, arguing that the state can’t override the existing federal program for drift gillnet permitting by banning use of drift gillnets at the state level. If the lawsuit is successful, California will have to allow fishermen who obtain federal permits to continue to use drift gillnets to target swordfish and other species. However, the same groups that championed California’s ban have also taken their cause to Congress, hoping to shut down fishing using drift gillnets once and for all. But a federal clamp-down on the drift gillnet industry would be just as damaging, which is why PLF is challenging burdensome federal regulations on swordfish fishing as well.
Rather than decimating livelihoods by banning an entire industry, regulators and legislators should work with the fishermen. If there is a need to further protect vulnerable species, additional regulation and improved techniques should be developed in a way that will protect endangered sea life while also allowing drift gillnet fishermen to continue to make a good living.