Thanks to a last-minute veto by President Donald Trump on January 1, dozens of American family fishing businesses will be saved from going out of business, and the ocean ecosystem will be better protected—both of which were being threatened by a bill that was more rhetoric than science.
In mid-December, Congress passed S. 906, the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act. The legislation would have phased out the use of drift gillnets, the only proven commercially viable way to catch swordfish, and would have effectively closed the West Coast swordfish fishery. This comes amidst particular uncertainty for fishermen in the region, who were already facing daunting challenges.
Environmental activists argued that these nets capture too many other species, known as “bycatch.” But data shows that eliminating these American swordfish businesses will only create more bycatch worldwide, resulting in more injured and killed sea life. When American seafood supply is reduced, demand for seafood shifts to other areas around the world that have fewer regulations and much higher bycatch rates. This means that shutting down American fisheries by banning drift gillnets will only result in more marine mammals and sea turtles being hurt and killed.
Taking into account the fact that there has not been an observed mortality of a sea turtle in the fishery since 1999, the futility of S. 906 becomes even more apparent.
Yet despite the damage it would cause to fishermen and sea life, S. 906 passed by voice vote in the Senate in July. Then in December the bill was sent to the president’s desk after passing in the House. PLF urged that the bill not be signed.
On January 1, the day before the bill otherwise would have become law, President Trump issued his veto message, returning the bill to the Senate without his approval. In his veto message, the president cited the “estimated 30 fishing vessels, all of which are operated by family-owned small businesses” being effectively shut down. He further added: “Without this fishery, Americans will import more swordfish and other species from foreign sources that frequently have more bycatch than our own fisheries. If the Congress wants to address bycatch, it should insist on a level playing field for imported seafood instead of crushing American fishing families.” The president’s veto message includes many of the same arguments PLF has made in opposition to the bill.
In addition to saving family fisheries, this veto also incentivizes conservation. For decades, fishermen have cooperated with state and federal officials over the best ways to reduce bycatch. Had the bill become law, the signal would be very different. The story of the Williams family—a family fishing operation that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to reduce bycatch and comply with regulations—tells us as much. If the bill passed, Congress would have sent the message that there would be no point in fishermen striving for compliance because the government would never stop its demands and will not compromise.
Even though Senator Dianne Feinstein has already promised to reintroduce the legislation, the president’s veto message may help convince those who truly believe in science that they should actually do what is best to support sustainable fishing, rather than push legislation that does not actually support conservation.