Most fishermen dream of the one that got away. But according to a report just published by Oceana – an international organization which concerns itself only with ocean conservation – many large fisheries throw away large percentages of their catch. In some cases, the amount that is being thrown away can be as high as 70 percent, and California’s fisheries are some of the dirtiest.
In their new research report, which can be found on their website, Oceana documents that commercial fishing operations in the U.S. throw away billions of pounds of what is commonly referred to as “bycatch” each year. Bycatch is anything that gets scooped up in the fishing nets, but is not what the fishermen intended to catch.
Oceana estimates that bycatch may account for as much as 40 percent of the fishing industry’s catch world-wide, or 60 billion pounds of fish. In some cases, more fish is thrown back than is kept on the boat and brought back for sale.
One example is the California Set Gillnet Fishery which discards 65 percent of its total catch, which is how it made the dirty fisheries list. Included in their bycatch were sharks, rays and other valuable fish. Another of California’s fisheries to make the list is the California Drift Gillnet Fishery, which got rid of 63 percent of its catch.
There are two main reasons for this kind of waste. The first is the kind of gear that the fisheries use. Typically, gear is designed to catch as much as possible. One of the methods which causes the most harm to the ocean environment is known as the ocean trawl. That is one of the methods used by the fisheries called out in Oceana’s study and one of the methods that are responsible for the majority of the bycatch in the United States.
The second reason is regulation. Fishermen are often required by law to throw back anything that they did not intentionally come out to get. The irony is not lost on fishermen, who can end up spending valuable fishing time cutting things out of their nets.
According to Eric Brazer of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance, the fishermen he works with have tried to create a demand for some of the lower value fish, fish they would normally throw away. If they can create a demand for some of the lesser known fish, they can achieve a “zero-discard” catch and make money from everything they catch. Last year, grants totaling $2.4 million were given to fishing operations that were working to modify their gear in order to make it more safe and result in less bycatch.
In the end, much of what is happening is being driven by the consumer, who often is not aware that some California fisheries are among the dirtiest. According to a representative of the grocery chain Whole Foods Market, many of their customers understand how harmful the problem of bycatch can be and want the store to buy fish that has been caught sustainably. But Sheila Bowman, with the Seafood Watch program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium thinks that while most people understand and do not like the idea of bycatch, they are quickly overwhelmed with all of the data involved and sometimes just want a quick and easy guide as to which seafood they should or should not buy.
By Dan Reyes