Reducing Bycatch By Strengthening U.S. Fisheries Law


Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

Growing up, most of us were urged to eat all of our dinner, to avoid wasting good food. In the case of seafood, the waste can start long before the fish reaches the plate and can wreak havoc on the marine ecosystem.

This week, our report Net Loss: The Killing of Marine Mammals in Foreign Fisheries put a spotlight on the number of marine mammals injured or killed and discarded by foreign commercial fishing each year as a result of bycatch, the incidental capture of marine life during fishing operations. (In his blog, NRDC’s Zak Smith discusses the complexities of applying this and other information to seafood buying choices.)

As we urge the world’s fisheries to aggressively tackle marine mammal bycatch problems where they exist, we also believe it’s past time to improve on how we manage bycatch of all marine species in U.S. fisheries, including by strengthening the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the federal fisheries law.

The U.S. has made considerable progress in many areas of fisheries management in recent decades. For example, NRDC’s report Bringing Back the Fish detailed how the MSA’s fisheries rebuilding requirements have resulted in a major rebound in U.S. fish populations. Nearly two-thirds of fish stocks put in rebuilding plans since 1996 have either rebuilt to healthy population levels, or have made significant rebuilding progress, resulting in increased gross commercial revenues of $585 million—92% higher (54% when adjusted for inflation) than before the rebuilding plans.

But U.S. fisheries have not made the same progress when it comes to bycatch. Our fishermen still snag far too many unwanted fish, birds, sea turtles – and yes, marine mammals—in longlines and nets, only to discard them dead or injured. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), for example, almost 20 percent of fish caught in U.S. waters overall is bycatch. And this is considered an underestimate.  The bycatch in specific fisheries can be stunning—in the Gulf of Mexico, the ratio of bycatch to shrimp in the shrimp trawl fishery is 2.5:1 (according to one recent study) and the surface longline fishery kills over 80 non-target species, including sea turtles, sharks, bluefin tuna, marlin and sailfish. In other cases, we have little idea how much or what type of bycatch is occurring—for example, according to NMFS, 80% of fisheries in the Southeast U.S. have either no data or unreliable data collected about marine mammal bycatch.

Bycatch can deplete fish populations and impair the recovery of fisheries once they are depleted. It is a particular concern for threatened or endangered species, including many marine mammals, turtles, and such fish species as the endangered Atlantic sturgeon, which is snagged in inshore gill nets and other fishing gear in the Mid-Atlantic. In other places, entire schools of small or juvenile fish are scooped up and discarded, reducing the forage base of the marine ecosystem, including for many of the fish we most love to eat, such as salmon, tuna and cod. Bycatch can also have economic impacts, as it wastes fishing effort and can represent a missed opportunity to harvest a fish rather than discard it.

Over the next several years, Congress will be considering amendments to the MSA as part of the law’s reauthorization. As part of this process, NRDC is urging that Congress amend the bycatch provisions of the MSA to help reduce bycatch’s ecological and economic harms, including to:

  • Require fishery management measures to “avoid” bycatch.
  • Expand the bycatch definition so that it includes seabirds and other marine species beyond fish, retained incidental catch, and unobserved mortality due to a direct encounter with fishing gear.
  • Repeal limits on the access to federally funded observer data.

Fisheries managers must also improve the monitoring and reporting of bycatch. The funding to do this keeps getting harder and harder to get. 

So, while we work to reduce marine mammal bycatch worldwide by holding foreign fisheries that export to the United States to higher standards, we shouldn’t forget that we have to strengthen U.S. law and its implementation in order to reduce the numbers of marine animals incidentally injured or killed by fishing right here in the United States.

noaa pic.jpg

Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries