Americans love to eat seafood. In fact, seafood consumption in the United States has grown 50 percent in the last 50 years, with shrimp, tuna and salmon topping the list as most popular choices. What many people may not know, however, is that their shrimp cocktail or swordfish steak may come with a side-order of dead sea turtle, dolphin or shark. Bycatch, the catch of non-target fish and ocean wildlife, is a persistent threat to marine ecosystems around the world. According to some estimates, bycatch may amount to 40 percent of the world’s fishing catch, totaling 63 billion pounds a year.
In many cases, fishing vessels throw more fish overboard than they keep, and harm or kill whales, dolphins, seals, sea turtles and sharks. In the U.S. alone, approximately 17-22 percent of what our fisheries catch is thrown back to sea. In a single year, more than 400,000 sharks were caught in longlines in the Atlantic and Gulf and 50,000 sea turtles died from interactions with Gulf shrimp trawls. And while these figures are already staggering, the situation could be much worse due to inadequate fishery monitoring and reporting levels.
Last week, Oceana released a new report identifying nine of the dirtiest U.S. fisheries for bycatch. These nine fisheries are responsible for more than half of all reported domestic bycatch, but only bring in a mere 7 percent of marketable seafood, throwing away the equivalent of almost a half a billion seafood meals a year. The fisheries range from the cold waters of Alaska, to the warm Gulf of Mexico, with four of the fisheries discarding more than 60 percent of their catch. All of these fisheries use one of three destructive gear types —longlines, gillnets or trawls.
Fortunately, there are answers to this problem—accurately counting everything that is caught by fishermen, capping the amount of waste allowed in our fisheries and controlling these caps through efficient fisheries management. Solutions include switching to less destructive gear, promoting and implementing bycatch avoidance initiatives and requiring bycatch reduction devices like turtle excluder devices.
Photo © Brian Skerry
Bycatch is not inevitable. Through simple but effective changes in the way we manage our nation’s fisheries, we can drastically decrease the number of fish wasted and animals killed as collateral damage to bring us seafood. Join Oceana in calling for an end to this unnecessary waste in order to protect the health and abundance of our marine ecosystems for decades to come.
Dominique Cano-Stocco is a campaign director at Oceana, the largest international organization focused solely on ocean conservation.
Lead photo © David Burdick