Fishing has always been a way of life for many people living in communities along the south Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico. Shrimp trawl fishermen and other commercial fleets employ thousands of workers and catch much of the seafood the South is famous for, while recreational fishers can be found from the salt marshes out into the open ocean. The South is also known for its beautiful coastlines and marine life, which can potentially be compromised by commercial fishing activities. In fact, according to a new report by Oceana, thousands of vulnerable animals like dolphins, sea turtles and sharks die at the hands of these fisheries every year as bycatch.
Bycatch, the unintentional catch of non-target fish and other marine animals, is a persistent threat to marine wildlife around the world, and specifically in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. In many cases, fishing vessels discard more fish than they keep, tossing back thousands of animals every year already dead or dying. But bycatch is more than just unintentionally netted seabirds and dolphins. The term also applies to discarded, edible fish like red snapper that are thrown overboard if they are too small or if fishermen have already reached their quotas. In the U.S., approximately 20 percent of what fisheries catch is thrown back to sea.
In a new report released last month, Oceana identified nine of the worst fisheries in the U.S. for bycatch, which include three fisheries that operate in the Gulf of Mexico and south Atlantic regions. In a single year, more than 300 pilot whales and 700 sea turtles were caught or killed on surface longlines in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. One of the worst offenders is the Southeast shrimp trawl fishery, which uses trawl nets as wide as football fields to catch tiny brown and pink Gulf shrimp, killing approximately 50,000 sea turtles every year in the process. These fisheries are placing threatened and endangered species at risk and hampering their recovery when there are less harmful ways to catch fish.
Fortunately, there are solutions to this immense problem plaguing our nation’s fisheries. All of the nine fisheries identified in the report use one of three types of fishing gear —longlines, gillnets or trawl nets. In recent years, there have been encouraging innovations in gear technology that can improve fishing efficiency and minimize deadly impacts to vulnerable marine animals. Simply by modifying the shape and size of hooks, using different bait or changing the depth of a net, bycatch can be greatly reduced. Even better, fishermen can also install Turtle Excluder Devices, which create an opening in the back of a fishing net to allow a captured sea turtle to escape.
Oceana also proposes that these fisheries adopt a three-pronged approach to reduce bycatch: count, cap, and control. To understand the full scope of bycatch, fisheries should account for all species captured and killed—not just the ones they target. While fisheries are required to set annual science-based catch limits, bycatch species are often ignored. Lastly, Oceana urges fisheries to control bycatch through less-destructive gear modifications and by implementing initiatives that actively work to avoid bycatch, such as identifying areas with historically high bycatch.
There is no reason your order of shrimp cocktail needs to come with a side of dead sea turtle. The amount of wasted fish and animals in our nation’s fisheries is truly disheartening, but it is a problem that can be controlled if we take the needed steps that will ensure healthy marine ecosystems into the future.
Amanda Keledjian is a marine scientist at Oceana, the largest international conservation organization working solely to protect the world’s oceans.