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Oceana Magazine Summer 2014: Wasted Catch

Wasted Catch

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.”

The good news, Keledjian and Cano-Stocco say, is that there are proven solutions to effectively reduce bycatch. “Oceana’s approach is to count, cap, and control,” explains Cano-Stocco.

We need to count bycatch much more accurately, so we know exactly how many and what kinds of species are being caught as bycatch. “The data in our report is the best publicly available information produced by the government,” says Keledjian “but data quality for fisheries, in particular bycatch, is horrendous.” Keledjian says that only 25 percent of the bycatch estimates produced by the government meet federally-established precision guidelines.

Next, Oceana’s report recommends that we set and enforce strict limits, or caps, on the amount of bycatch allowed. Finally, we need to control and reduce bycatch by implementing better management and requiring more selective fishing gear. Both the type of marine life caught and how many are caught depends on what type of fishing gear fishermen are using. While there are a variety of fishing gears, three stand out as the most detrimental: longlines, trawls, and gillnets, like the ones Shester observed in Baja California. “All nine fisheries in our report use these three gear types,” says Cano-Stocco, “and they’re known around the world as the worst gear types for bycatch.”

For sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico, Cano-Stocco points out that some regulations to reduce turtle bycatch already exist. Federal law requires that shrimp trawlers use turtle excluder devices, known as TEDs. When installed in trawl nets, these devices provide an escape hatch for turtles caught in the trawl’s path. But a 2011 Oceana report discovered that only 21 percent of fishermen were using TEDs correctly.

“The government needs to do a better job of enforcing their own regulations,” she says, “ensuring that fishermen are using TEDs, and using them correctly.” Oceana also notes that for some gear types, like large mesh-gillnets, the answer might be to transition to a different gear type entirely.

Even though years have passed since he spent his first day on a gillnet boat, Shester still remembers watching as the fishermen hauled aboard a sea lion entangled in one of the nets, thrashing violently to free itself. “It was a somber experience for me, and for the fishermen, too,” he says. “You could tell they were ashamed by it.”

The bigger problem, Shester says, is that we have no way of measuring just how harmful bycatch is to marine ecosystems. “We are removing species from the ecosystem in vast numbers, without even knowing how important they are,” he says. “We are damaging things we don’t even understand.”


This work was funded by grants from the Robertson Foundation, the Roy A. Hunt Foundation, and the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation.