THE BLOG

Wasted Cash in the US Fishing Industry

07/11/2014 11:13 am ET | Updated Sep 10, 2014
Joe Raedle via Getty Images

The fishing industry is an important part of the U.S. economy. In 2012, commercial fishermen landed almost 10 billion pounds of fish worth more than $5 billion. What would you say, though, if you found out that some U.S. fishermen were throwing nearly half of their catch back overboard, because they were only allowed to keep certain species? And what if you heard that other fishermen were unintentionally catching large numbers of vulnerable marine animals like dolphins, whales, and sea turtles -- damaging gear and hurting their own bottom lines?

Waste on this scale occurs every day in many U.S. fisheries, hurting both fishermen and marine life. A new report by Oceana recently revealed the economic losses from this wasted catch -- an amount that could reach a staggering $1 billion annually.

Fishermen typically target a specific type of fish, but some types of fishing gear catch many other marine creatures. This unintentionally caught seafood, known as bycatch, is often thrown overboard and wasted, either because it is too small to keep, is poorer quality, or is less valuable than the targeted fish. Some U.S. fisheries actually throw away more fish than they keep, sometimes discarding their target fish if they exceed their quota, or even discarding another fishermen's target fish. Researchers estimate that an average of 20 percent of what is caught in the U.S. is thrown away each year, wasting approximately 2 billion pounds of seafood, the equivalent of nearly half a billion seafood meals. Bycatch also results in the deaths of tens of thousands of sea turtles, whales, dolphins, and seals.

Oceana's new report, "Wasted Cash," shows that bycatch costs fishermen time, gear, and access to healthy fish stocks, which adds up to a significant amount of lost money and jobs. The report examined economic losses in three main regions: the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, New England and the Mid-Atlantic, and Alaska and the Pacific Coast. Fisheries in the southeast region discard popular seafood like shrimp, grouper, snapper, tuna, and swordfish. Fisheries in Alaska and the Pacific are discarding other dinner favorites, like halibut and crabs, while fisheries in New England and the Mid-Atlantic region waste sea scallops and flounder, including $25 million worth of fish discarded in the region's bottom trawl fisheries.

Discarding fish is akin to throwing money or perfectly good food into the ocean. Most successful businesses in the U.S. strive to cut waste and increase efficiency, and fisheries should do the same. Many fishermen have the means and knowledge to make these changes, but lack the economic incentives that would compel them to follow through.

Oceana developed a three-part solution to reduce bycatch and limit this wasted cash: "Count, Cap and Control." First, all species caught in a fishery, including bycatch, should be counted. Accurate and precise data are essential for avoiding the negative consequences of overfishing and lost future revenue. Next, we need to set limits, or "caps." Establishing bycatch limits is critical for maintaining healthy fish populations, and helps fishermen avoid financial losses from continued overfishing. And finally, fisheries managers should control and minimize bycatch by enforcing bycatch limits and finding incentives to change behavior, including real-time reporting, cleaner gear, time-area management, bycatch reduction devices, or other emerging economic tools.

Bycatch threatens more than just the bottom line -- it puts the future resilience of ocean ecosystems at risk. With your help, Oceana is working to put our "Count, Cap and Control" solution in place to protect fishermen, fisheries and marine life.