Bycatch waste reaches further than fish


A sea turtle escapes a net – Courtesy

There is a major pissing contest under way. It is pitting an environmental non-governmental organization with a litigious reputation against the fishing industry and its representatives on the regional fishery management councils. It is gonna be interesting, because IMO they are both right, and seeing who blinks first is in the offing. I hope folks don’t forget the end game in all this: making sure the resource is sustainably managed.

What is this all about? Back in March, Oceana published a report called “Wasted Catch: Unsolved Problems in U.S. Fisheries.” The report points out all the bycatch, those non-target fish that are caught and subsequently dumped back over the side. Some would argue that these fish are not really wasted, as they become food for other sea critters. Well, yes, they do, but that would be a real reach. According to the report, somewhere between 17 to 22 percent of the U.S. catch is discarded, amounting to 2 billion pounds. On a worldwide basis, it is estimated to reach 40 percent, or 63 billion pounds, per year.

Of course, the commercial fishing industry was incensed by the report, because they did not see references to the improvements that have been made in recent years. To the industry’s credit, there have been improvements, but this does not mean that more is impossible. Here in New England, there have been a number of improvements in mobile gear. There are separator trawls that minimize the catch of other species, primarily in the haddock fishery. The Rhule trawl also helps minimize bycatch. New designs for the scallop dredge help with some finfish and turtles. A reporting regime in the scallop fishery helps avoid hotspots of yellowtail flounder to mitigate bycatch. So, yes, the industry has done a lot. But the overwhelming negative pushback on this report says to me that it is unwilling to recognize that a problem remains.

Perhaps what galled the commercial industry was a follow-up report by Oceana called “Wasted Cash.” What the industry wanted was a complete retraction of the report; instead, it got more of what it doesn’t like. IMO, industry could have simply said from day one, yup, there is wasted bycatch in some segments of the commercial fishery, but a number of improvements have been made, bycatch has been reduced by X percent, and we plan to do more.” That would have dealt with it. Industry’s level of anger concerns me that maybe we don’t really have a good handle on the true level of bycatch.

Into this mix, the RFMC’s interjected its concerns. The council chairs coordinating committee sent a lengthy letter to Oceana asking that it rescind the report because it did not reflect the improvements that have been made. Most of those improvements have been implemented through the council process, so the chairs are very familiar with the issue. At least I was not surprised when Oceana basically said, “Hell no, we are not retracting the report.” In fact, Oceana is crafting a rebuttal to the CCC letter. Now folks have really got their hackles up.

Wanna make this go away? Most of it can be solved tomorrow and with at least some economic benefit to the commercial fishing industry. Again, the report points out that what is thrown over has a value of about $1 billion. So all the regional fishery management councils have to do is implement a 100-percent retention rule along with 100 percent electronic monitoring. No size limits and everything gets counted. Mesh size restrictions should remain in place. Problem solved – or mostly solved in the U.S., anyway. However, a lot of folks in the commercial industry will fight against that idea. They say that under certain circumstances, they may not have enough capacity on their vessels to bring it all in. IMO, then they need to tow the full net to a shore side facility to unload it. The RFMCs did not put a net in the water. The fishermen did. They need to be responsible for their own actions.

Unfortunately, I suspect that there will continue to be finger pointing. Oceana will issue a rebuttal to the CCC letter, and the industry will continue to throw over a resource with some value. I agree: “What a waste!”


"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.

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