What if each time you bought a fish filet from a grocery store or restaurant, it included a side order of dead dolphin, drowned sea turtle, or other discarded sea life? I'm guessing you probably wouldn't order that fish anymore. Unfortunately, U.S. fisheries unnecessarily kill marine life and waste tons of edible fish every day.
A new report by Oceana uncovered the staggering amount of wasted seafood and marine life, known as bycatch, in nine U.S. fisheries.
Fishermen usually target one type of seafood, a specific type of fish, but depending upon the type of fishing gear they use, they often catch enormous amounts of species that aren't on their list. Swordfish and cod gillnet fishermen sometimes haul up dolphins, gulf shrimp trawlers often catch sea turtles in their massive nets, and snapper-grouper longliners hook hundreds of thousands of sharks. These animals are usually tossed overboard, injured, dying or dead.
The scale of the problem is staggering -- several U.S. fisheries actually throw away more marine life than they keep. 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 and killing hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins, sharks, seals and sea turtles.
Bycatch is a problem for many fisheries, but some are worse than others. Using government data, Oceana's new report identifies nine fisheries with some of the worst bycatch in the U.S. These nine fisheries are responsible for more than half of reported bycatch in the country. The figures are astounding -- four fisheries discard 63 to 66 percent of everything they catch. If you can't quite grasp just how much that is, think of it this way: These nine fisheries waste almost half a billion seafood meals.
Recently, the scallop fishery was allowed to throw away more flounder than flounder fishermen were allowed to catch and keep. The southeast shrimp trawl fishery kills 50,000 sea turtles each year, while the southeast snapper-grouper longline fishery captures and discards more than 400,000 sharks each year. On the Pacific coast, the California drift gillnet fishery killed or entangled more than 550 whales, dolphins and seals in the last five years, including endangered sperm whales.
The good news is that bycatch is a fixable problem. We need to accurately count everything that we catch, limit the amount of wasted catch in each fishery using science-based limits, and avoid catching non-target species by using more selective fishing gear.
These three steps would go a long way toward reducing bycatch and would improve the economic security of U.S. fisheries. Reducing bycatch will improve fishing efficiency and reduce fishery closures. It also leaves more fish in the sea to build healthy fish populations, which ensure that our ecosystems stay balanced and resilient in the face of threats like climate change and pollution.
The government isn't adequately analyzing or reporting bycatch data, but Oceana is pushing to solve this problem. Consumers can help, too. Look for sustainable, U.S.-caught seafood, and consult existing reference guides to avoid species caught with gillnets, longlines and trawls, which have high levels of bycatch. Help us put an end to the waste, and keep our fisheries healthy and our oceans abundant.