Bycatch: The Fishing Industry’s Darkest Accident

There is an immense threat facing our ocean wildlife–one that we have the power to influence with our purchases. It’s no secret that the fishing industry is riddled with serious environmental and social challenges, whether it be ocean acidification caused by global warming, depletion of fish stock, plastic pollution, notorious human rights violations of fishermen and boat workers, or the largely unsustainable commercial fishing practices. One issue in particular, that of accidental take or ‘bycatch’, has been causing disruption to marine ecosystems on a massive scale.

Bycatch refers to all the non-targeted organisms accidentally caught, injured, or killed by fishing practices. Commercial fishing operations indiscriminately catch all types of unintended marine life, including whales, sea turtles, dolphins, sharks, and even seabirds. This includes when marine mammals get stuck in fishnets, trapped in fishing gear, or injured by fishing equipment. Fishermen often dispose of bycatch by throwing these animals back into the ocean, fatally injured or already dead.

The World Wildlife Fund cites bycatch as the biggest threat to endangered marine mammals, as each year hundreds of thousands of dolphins and whales are caught in nets and killed around the world. These accidentally caught organisms are often protected, endangered, or keystone species, vital to the balance of the ocean’s wildlife. Bycatch causes issues for population monitoring, too. If scientists and marine biologists are unable to accurately track population levels, and how much bycatch has occurred, it becomes impossible to understand population health.

By removing certain organisms in large numbers, bycatch can disrupt entire food chains by reducing the amount of prey available. When non-target fish species are caught, it can contribute to the overfishing of that species, and make it more difficult to replenish their population. 90% of global fish populations are fully-fished or overfished. When fish populations are depleted, entire ecosystems collapse. This is not to mention how many communities around the world rely on fish, seafood, and a thriving ocean as a major source of nutrition and livelihood.

Several popular fishing methods are to blame for the large amount of bycatch caught each year. Trawl nets are funnel-shaped contraptions that are dragged by a boat vessel. Trawl nets are the most common method of catching fish and shrimp in the world, and various trawls are designed to target varying species of fish. The issue is that these nets catch anything that swims inside them– by the very virtue of them being a ‘net’. That’s the simple nature of commercial fishing, yet it causes serious problems for underwater life.

Bottom trawling is one of the most dangerous fishing methods, as giant weights are dragged across the ocean floor, wiping out coral reefs and other sea habitats. Gillnet operations try to catch fish by their gills, which, of course, ends up capturing plenty of other animals too. While over the years, gillnets and other types of netting have been updated and improved to prevent bycatch, it still remains a huge problem.

Drift nets, another type of fishing contraption, are very long nets that are freely floated through the ocean, destroying everything in their path. These nets are effective and easy to use, but have garnered a reputation as ‘curtains of death’ due to their high bycatch rates. Because of drift nets’ deadly nature, the United Nations and the European Union banned their use in 2002 and 2013, respectively. Despite this, it’s suspected that thousands of drift nets are still being used around the world illegally.

Beyond the environmental impacts, bycatch can cause serious economic problems for fishermen and their communities. Fishermen that choose to abide by international fishing laws and regulations may catch less fish than those who utilize illegal equipment. Fishing communities are disincentivized from investing in more sustainable fishing technologies because of the unfair competition created from unequal adoption. Of course, overfishing and ecosystem collapse also harm fishing communities, as target species’ populations fluctuate unpredictably or drop extremely low.

So what can we do about it? Well, bycatch is a particularly insidious issue, as national and international laws fail to actually stop the problem from occurring. In many cases, fishermen will throw the bycatch overboard before reaching port to avoid fines for breaking any laws.

However, there are conservationists fighting for sustainable fishing solutions. Some fishery operations have instituted tracking and monitoring programs in order to better understand the depth of the bycatch problem. Other operations in the commercial shrimp trawl industry have implemented turtle excluder devices or TEDs, which are supposed to allow for sea turtles caught in fishing nets to escape. Longline fishing operations, notorious for harming sharks, have begun to install baits that are scented with an odor that deters them. Researchers have even found a way to reduce the bycatch from gillnet operations by illuminating nets with LED lights.

Innovative solutions like these attempt to make the nets and lines safer to drag through the ocean, without catching, injuring, and killing so many unintended marine animals. These types of solutions are relatively simple and inexpensive. More research is needed to understand their efficacy and best-use cases, so that widespread adoption can be encouraged.

On an individual level, it’s possible that boycotting the fishing industry or consuming only sustainably sourced seafood could help encourage the industry standards to shift. Supporting sustainable fisheries could improve both the quality of fish you get, and the efficacy of the fishing operation.

Join us this Wednesday, January 26th, at 11:00 am UTC for a conversation on bycatch and the fishing industry with marine biologist and founder of Fish Free February, Simon Hilbourne. We’ll be live on our Instagram, @sea_token. Send us your questions for Simon on Twitter for a chance to win $20 worth of $SEA.

Resources and further reading:

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