What a Waste

Bycatch problems are readily resolvable. Managers just need to take action

Northern fulmars vying to be first in line at the discharge chute, commercial cod longline vessel. Photo Credit: Yolanda Malavear, NMFS Certified Observer (courtesy noaa.org)

Northern fulmars vying to be first in line at the discharge chute, commercial cod longline vessel. Photo Credit: Yolanda Malavear, NMFS Certified Observer (courtesy noaa.org)

This past week, the nonprofit organization Oceana released a report that highlighted the ongoing resource waste in nine of what they are calling the dirtiest fisheries in the U.S. While it is hard to argue with the premise of this report, I am not sure that I entirely agree with their solutions. When it comes to finfish bycatch, the problem can be eliminated tomorrow morning, and there also are existing methods to minimize interactions with mammals and turtles.

Of the nine fisheries outlined in the report, several are in the Northeast:

  1. Northeast Bottom Trawl (35 percent discarded) – More than 50 million pounds of fish are thrown overboard every year.
  2. Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Longline Fishery (23 percent discarded) – More than 75 percent of the wasted fish in this fishery are valuable tuna, swordfish and other billfish targeted by the fishery.
  3. New England and Mid-Atlantic Gillnet Fishery (16 percent discarded) – More than 2,000 dolphins, porpoises and seals were captured in one year.

Whether these fisheries are directly related to the Northeast is certainly not relevant to the overall Oceana report. Nor is it relevant to what I am going to suggest. I do think it is worthwhile to point out the extent of the problem.

The Oceana report outlines three possible solutions to minimize this wasted resource: (1) COUNT everything that is caught in a fishery, including bycatch species; (2) CAP the amount of wasted catch in each fishery using scientifically based limits; and (3) CONTROL and avoid bycatch by making improvements such as using cleaner fishing gear and enhanced monitoring.

OK, arguing with the suggested mitigation measures is hard, except if you are in one of the impacted fisheries. From an overall standpoint, a few of these problems can be corrected immediately, and I do not understand why it has not been done already. First, mandate TEDs (trawl efficiency devices or turtle excluder devices) in all mobile gear fisheries that have a certain level interaction with turtles. Along the Northeast Atlantic coast, NOAA’s Protected Species Division has been holding the scallop dredge fishery’s feet to the fire when it has demonstrated minimal, and I mean minimal, interaction with turtles. I do not believe that there has been a documented lethal take in several years. In the Gulf, where interaction is a tow-by-tow event, they don’t have to have TEDs. It don’t make no sense to me. Level the playing field.

The gillnet bycatch problem might be mitigated by mandating pingers, which are fairly effective at keeping mammals away from the nets. Better yet, put in place the recommended caps, and shut the fishery when it is reached. The fishermen will work on ways to minimize the takes so they can keep fishing.

From the standpoint of the mobile gear groundfishery and other mobile gear fisheries, mandate 100 percent retention of all finfish. This will do a number of things. First, with onboard video monitoring, it will allow all catch monitoring to be done dockside, and it will give an accurate picture of what is actually being caught and killed. Next, it will force the crew that caught the fish to have to deal with it in a more complicated fashion than just shoveling it over the side. In the not too distant past, I can remember running through what seemed like miles of 4- to 6-inch dead and dying whiting intermixed with some other small groundfish off of Gloucester. So much dead discard that the seagulls no longer paid any attention to it. They could not eat any more. This is a complete waste. Requiring dockside dealing with this bycatch will inspire practices that avoid or minimize the bycatch. Also, for all allocated groundfish species, all landings should be charged against each vessel’s quota. If they run out of quota, then they have to buy more or stop fishing.

Essentially, 100 percent retention will end all finfish bycatch on the day it is implemented. It will help scientists gather catch data, and it will push fishermen to do what they do best: figure out ways to be more efficient. It should be a win-win deal, but there would be some fishermen who would complain bitterly that they have no way to deal with net-loads of unwanted catch. Sorry, I don’t buy it. They are the ones who put their net over the side. They are the ones who have to be responsible for what it catches, even if that means towing the whole mess into port for unloading.

The bycatch problem for the most part is solvable. There just has to be the will to put in place some reasonable requirements, and the fishing industry will figure out how to make them work as best it can.


"Rip" Cunningham, who owned, published and edited Salt Water Sportsman for 32 years, is also an accomplished writer and photographer. Cunningham has received several awards from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in such magazines as Field and Stream, Rod and Reel, Gray's Sporting Journal, Australian Boating and the Boston Globe Magazine. Among his many accomplishments, Rip was recognized as the Conservationist of the Year from both the International Game Fish Association, the Coastal Conservation Association of Massachusetts, The Billfish Foundation and Federation of Fly Fishers. "I've earned a living from fishing, and I believe strongly that people with an interest in a given area should give something back,” he says. “It's rewarding every single day." Cunningham received his MBA from Babson College in Wellesley, MA and his BA from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. He has two grown children and four grand children and lives with his wife and hunting dogs in Dover, MA and Yarmouth, ME. When he's not fishing or working through the items on his wife's "honey-do" list, Cunningham does some hunting and skiing.

Posted in Conservation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Conservation Partners