Fisheries are under heavy fire from news outlets after an Oceana report displayed statistics related to the industry occurrence known as bycatch, the unintended capture of marine life. The report, Wasted Catch: Unsolved Bycatch Problems in U.S. Fisheries, specifically displays the nine “dirtiest fisheries” in the U.S., stating that these fisheries throw back into the water up to 66 percent of the fish they catch. Overall, the report says researchers estimate that approximately 17 to 22 percent of U.S. catch is thrown back every year.
The report, which analyzes data published by the National Marine Fisheries Service, acknowledges that Oceana is working with estimated data and that the NMFS does not routinely update its records. A nationwide estimate of fishing practice statistics was published in 2005, Oceana says, but it does not expect the NMFS to publish another similar survey until 2017. As a result of both the currently available data and extended period that parties must wait to receive updated data, readers may conclude that bycatch is a serious but under-studied problem. Various strategies for limiting the amount of bycatch exist, but the efficacy and necessity of such solutions may remain unclear without further study from groups such as the NMFS.
Perhaps the most alarming part of this study is not that fisheries catch unwanted marine life and then throw it back, it is that the marine life they throw back is often dead as a result of its capture. As mentioned in the study, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico longlines have been known to capture large numbers of pilot whales and sea turtles in lines not intended for those species. They, among other mammals, can suffocate if captured in the nets for too long a period. An NPR article studying the issue of bycatch also mentions dolphins and seals as a part of that list.
Oceana recommends that fisheries accurately monitor their bycatch amounts and employ practices that will help lessen the amount of unwanted animals that end up in their nets. Fisheries can use turtle excluder devices — escape openings in the back of trawler nets — to allow turtles to remove themselves when caught. They can also change the style of their hooks, modify the type of bait they use, and find more selective areas to fish where mammals tend not to congregate. Oceana also mentions the necessity for laws and law enforcement that limits the amount of bycatch any fishery can accumulate. Were limits enforced, Oceana suggests that fishermen would work to reduce their bycatch because they would want to keep fishing.
In the meantime, NPR recommends that consumers can vote with their food choices by asking their seafood vendors where and how their marine life was caught. The news service, for instance, considers Halibut caught with hooks to be more sustainable than the same fish caught with gill nets because the nets greatly enhance the possibility that other marine life will be killed in the process.
Image courtesy of Doug Helton via Wikimedia Commons