Seafood Waste: Fisheries Throw Away 20% Of Animals Caught In Nets

By Ben Wolford on March 21, 2014 3:38 PM EDT

This common dolphin was a casualty of industrial fishing bycatch. (Photo: Oceana)
This common dolphin was a casualty of industrial fishing bycatch. (Photo: Oceana)

Industrial fishermen throw back one out of every five animals they catch, many of them dead or dying, leading to massive waste and threatening endangered species, a new report claims.

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The wasted animals are known as bycatch, the unintended prey of commercial fisheries. According to "Wasted Catch," a report out Thursday from the environmental activist group Oceana, the United States discards perhaps 2 billion pounds of sea animals each year. The report is not clear about how many of these animals are sent back into the ocean alive, but the authors do complain that records were often outdated or incomplete.

"Hundreds of thousands of dolphins, whales, sharks, sea birds, sea turtles, and fish needlessly die each year as a result of indiscriminate fishing gear," said Amanda Keledjian, report author and marine scientist at Oceana, in a statement. Many of these animals are endangered species that become entangled in massive fishing nets. Some of the worst offending fisheries toss out more sea creatures than they take in.

The fishing industry responded, saying bycatch is often the result of market demand. Bycatch are "fish that if you bring it to the market, you cannot sell it...because people are not educated enough to understand that all of the fish in the ocean [are] good. It's all good protein," Angela Sanfilippo, executive director of the Massachusetts Fishermen's Partnership, told The Boston Globe. She also said, "You cannot go fishing for just one type of species. When fishermen go fishing, they catch all types of species together."

As a solution, Oceana proposes new regulations on the amount of bycatch that fisheries are allowed to take in, plus imposing restrictions on the kinds of equipment the industry is allowed to use. "The solution can be as simple as banning the use of drift gillnets, transitioning to proven cleaner fishing gears, requiring Turtle Excluder Devices in trawls, or avoiding bycatch hotspots," says Oceana scientist Geoff Shester in the statement.

Similar measures are already being employed by lobstermen in New England in response to pressure from environmental groups saying endangered whales are being threatened by lobster pot lines. Entanglements are part of the reason only 500 North Atlantic right whales remain in the wild. For smaller species, like dolphins, turtles, seals and sharks, vast nets are contributing to overfishing and stealing the catch of other fisheries, Oceana says.

The report highlighted nine fisheries that were responsible for half the bycatch reported in the United States. The worst four each discarded nearly two-thirds of their catch, according to Oceana. Another fishery in the Gulf of Mexico targets tuna, swordfish and sharks; of the 23 percent of its catch it throws back, more than three-fourths are tuna, swordfish and sharks. "Longline fishermen discard hundreds of thousands of the same fish and sharks that they target because the animals are too small or the fishermen exceed annual quotas," leading to overfishing and inefficiency, Oceana wrote.

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