Earlier this year, Oceana released a new report, “Wasted Catch,” that looked at the dirtiest fisheries in the United States for bycatch, and found that some U.S. fisheries discard more than half of everything they catch. This feature takes a close look at these fisheries and other issues surrounding bycatch. It was originally published in the summer 2014 issue of Oceana magazine, and the full excerpt can be viewed here.
A New Oceana Report Reveals Nine of the Dirtiest Fisheries in the United States
Just a few miles off the coast of Punta Abreojos, in Mexico’s Baja California, Geoff Shester watched Mexican fishermen haul up dozens of gillnets. On board as a scientific observer, Shester watched the fisherman unload nets laden with commercial fish species, like California halibut, and hundreds of pounds of other unsellable marine life. “It was appalling to see these amazing animals, many of which I had never even seen before, caught unnecessarily in these nets,” says Shester. “I could see that almost everything was already dead, and then they started throwing the animals back into the ocean.”
Now Oceana’s California campaign director, Shester was researching bycatch in the gillnet fisheries while earning his Ph.D. in environment and resources at Stanford University. “My team and I spent the several months with these fishermen, writing down everything that they caught,” he says. Shester eventually estimated that these fishermen discarded more than one-third of their catch by weight, tossing unwanted marine life back overboard, many dead or dying.
What Shester observed is typical of many fisheries around the world, including those in the United States. Fishermen often catch marine species that they are not targeting or are not allowed to bring back to port. Known as bycatch, this unintentionally caught marine life occurs in nearly all fisheries, but some catch far more bycatch than others. A new Oceana report reveals the immense scale of bycatch in the United States, finding that some U.S. fisheries discard more than 50 percent of everything they catch.
“Bycatch is anything that fishermen didn’t intend to catch,” says Dominique Cano-Stocco, Oceana campaign director for responsible fishing. “That includes whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, sharks, and sea turtles,” she says, “but also important species of commercial and recreational fish like swordfish, cod, salmon, and halibut.”
An estimated 40 percent of the global catch is discarded overboard, according to a 2009 study in the journal Marine Policy. Data from the government and researchers indicate that U.S. fisheries throw away 17 to 22 percent of their catch before reaching port, which could amount to 2 billion pounds of unnecessarily wasted marine life every year. But some fisheries are far worse than others. Cano-Stocco and her team used government data to identify some of the worst U.S. fisheries for bycatch — those that discard the highest amounts of marine life or harm marine life at a very high rate.
These fisheries discard as much as 66 percent of everything they catch. With such high bycatch rates, some of these fisheries catch, kill, and discard more marine life than they bring back to shore. “The U.S. government is required to reduce bycatch, maintain healthy fish stocks, and manage threatened and endangered species,” says Cano-Stocco. “But that is not happening successfully— we need to do better.”
Cano-Stocco says that sea turtles are a prime example of how fisheries managers can reduce bycatch. Each of the five turtle species found in the Gulf of Mexico is listed as endangered or threatened and protected under the Endangered Species Act. Yet many of these species are regularly caught as bycatch by shrimp trawlers, which are authorized by law to catch and kill more than 50,000 sea turtles each year.
“A lot of money goes into protecting and conserving some of these turtle species, so turtle bycatch undermines those investments and makes it very difficult for these species to recover,” says Amanda Keledjian, a marine scientist at Oceana. Keledjian notes that bycatch is detrimental to fishermen, too. “Bycatch is a big problem for many fishing operations” she says. “If I was trying to run a business, I certainly wouldn’t want half of my efforts going into the trash.”