It’s hard to believe that some fisheries are still throwing out more murdered fish than they bring onto the shore. Recent estimates from researchers found that 17-22% of U.S. marine catch is discarded every year, which is equivalent to around two billion pounds of fish a year.
No one wants to turn the ocean into a fish graveyard and that’s why bycatch is an important environmental issue you need to know about.
The commercial fishing industry is characterized by any large or small vessel that uses huge nets and long lines to bring in humungous hoards of fish.
When commercial fishermen catch and discard animals they do not want, cannot sell, or are not allowed to keep, it’s collectively known as “bycatch.” Bycatch can be fish, but also includes large marine animals that are caught in the nets and lines too. It is estimated that 100 million sharks and hundreds of thousands of dolphins, whales, seals, and sea turtles die each year for no reason except for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Bycatch is a grim issue not only because it is a pure waste of life, but also because the ecosystem is disturbed. This means that the bycatch that was supposed to be food for the other organisms – is food they no longer have.
How does this negligence happen?
One of the most prevalent methods of fishing is called trawling, this is when large vessels drag huge nets through the ocean and catch all fish in its grasp, including large marine animals. The problem is that these nets trap the intended fish, but also capture unintended fish that fishermen end up killing because they are too young, illegal to catch, are over their quota or there’s no market for them.
Which other fishing methods cause bycatch?
Sadly for the fish, trawling is not the only dangerous fishing technique they need to worry about.
Long lining and gill-net techniques contribute to a staggering amount of bycatch, as well. Add to that, certain fish catches create substantially more bycatch than others, it is a recipe for disaster.
For example, in the early 2000s, shrimp trawlers in the Mediterranean Seas were discarding 6 pounds of fish for every 1 pound of shrimp caught. Not only is this method wasteful, but it also destroys habitats when nets as large as football fields are being dragged through the ocean floor.
Longlining fishermen use lines with hooks and bait attached to them that span about 50 miles long. As the lines are left in the water, many birds and unintentionally caught fish are stuck on the hooks until the fishermen pull the line back to the vessel, often too late to save.
Gillnets are large nets a couple of miles long that are either anchored or left drifting in the ocean. Fish that try to swim through them are caught by their gills onto the net. This practice is so harmful, six states have banned the practice because of the excessive bycatch, yet 38 U.S. fisheries still employ such damaging tactics. On the coast of California, fishermen used gillnets to catch halibut, angel sharks, and white sea bass. However, they killed so many other large marine animals including endangered great white sharks that the practice was banned through water shallower than 360 feet.
How much of our oceans are being fished?
The answer to this question has been hard to find until recently. This is because regional fishery managers for decades have tried their best to keep where their vessels are and how much they catch a secret.
Thanks to the Global Fishing Watch, which was founded in 2015, we are now able to use satellite imagery to check the activity of commercial vessels. They do this by using a strategic partnership between Google, Oceana, and Skythruth. Oceana is an ocean conservation organization and Skytruth uses satellites to protect the environment. Through their partnership, the data collected has been eye-opening, to say the least. We can now estimate that over 55% of our ocean is being fished by the commercial fishing industry.
What about the fishermen whose lives depend on the industry?
It would be crass not to mention the hard work and skill involved by fishermen who are ensuring food security for more than three billion people, creating millions of jobs and contributing to the most valuable traded food commodity.
Owner Todd Williams of Bay Port Fishing Company, a family-owned fishery in Michigan since 1895, explains that he has been fishing all his life. It is his love and passion which puts food on the table for his family.
In an interview with his crew, Deck Hand Earl Long explains that there is a misconception in the way they catch fish he says, “our nets are specifically made to let certain fish swim through so that our nets catch what we want them to catch, and people don’t know that, they think that we just got nets out there that catch every fish in the water, that is not true.”
It may be true that smaller family-owned fisheries like the Bay Port Fish Company operate safely and stick to a certain quota, however, what about the huge vessels that bring in thousands of pounds of fish each catch?
In 2013, the second-largest super trawler in the world, called The FV Margiris, docked in Australia. After 12 years of litigation with the Australian Government, the FV Margiris was given the green light to plunder the ocean as long as they followed the rules set. Gerry Geen explains the pros to having the Margiris in Australia, “this boat would allow us to catch these fish at least cost so we can afford to sell them into international markets.”
However, the ship was never able to leave the dock due to the immense amount of public outcry. In a rare move, the government sided with the people and banned the ship from fishing its seas.
Why did this ship cause so much uproar?
The journey The FV Margiris took before reaching Australia tells all. For starters, the super trawler is massive. At 142 meters the behemoth runs the length of two Qantas A380 Airbus’s. The huge nets she casts are more than twice that length. The killing factory below the deck gives the vessel the ability to process and store 4500 tons of fish which means the crew can stay out in the ocean for weeks longer than any other regular-sized trawler.
But after fishing off the coast of West Africa before coming to Australia, the artisanal fishermen from Senegal to Mauritania were begging their governments to do something about the super-trawler. It was taking their livelihoods away one fell swoop at a time. CEO of Greenpeace David Ritter, who led the campaign to end the FV Margiris fishing said, “this is the rich developed world that is exporting its problem to the developing world.”
Is anything being done to combat the issue of bycatch?
The Global Fishing Watch has made it its mission to track where, when and how a vessel is fishing. They aim to make this data publicly available so that it entices fishery managers to be more transparent with their catch data. But this brings up the main issue with bycatch, it is so hard to calculate just how big the problem is!
Research shows three out of four US fisheries do not accurately monitor the amount of bycatch caught. That is why the first solution in place needs to be an accurate way to monitor what these vessels are bringing in and throwing out. If this is made possible, fishery managers will then need to be able to count and make a cap on the amount of bycatch allowed. With these regulations and incentives for more environmentally sensitive practices employed, depleted fish stocks could be able to properly replenish over time.
The reality: A system made for overfishing!
Not only do vessels compete with each other for already depleted fish stock, but also the world’s governments have been incentivizing this destructive kind of competition!
Subsidies have paid the global fishing industry a whopping $35 billion dollars a year, $20 billion of which is paid in order to enhance the capacity of large fishing fleets as well as fuel and gear subsidies, plus a slew of tax exemption programs.
Subsides create a market for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fish (IUU fish). Many catches wouldn’t even make a profit if it wasn’t for these subsidies. This means that governments pay to let fishing vessels fish for longer periods of time further out in the sea. This causes immense overfishing which subsequently means more pointless death in the form of bycatch.
What is being done about these damaging subsidies?
The damage of these subsidies has not gone unnoticed. For the last 20 years, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has been in talks to abolish or reduce these harmful grants. If some or all of these subsidies are disbanded researchers estimate by 2050 that 12.5 percent of the world’s fish biomass or 35 million metric tonnes can be recovered. Hopefully, countries can for once put the livelihood of our planet ahead of their bottom line, or else soon we may be running into a huge shortage of the world’s most crucial protein source.
Any solutions if the UN takes another 20 years?
Marine reserves in which patches of land are protected until the biomass of fish recover is a great solution to the problem of bycatch and overfishing, yet the industry has been reluctant to be open to such practices. Another solution would be to modify fishing gear to be more selective in the way they catch fish.
If things remain status quo, soon the ocean will be so devastated we will not have a reliable source of food for our people. With an ever-increasing population it is imperative we start implementing the above solutions and live in harmony with the ocean.
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