(above photo: Leatherback turtle tangled in fishing nets. © WWF)
Bycatch refers to the unwanted sea life fishermen catch when they’re fishing for something else. Fishermen throw the vast majority of the bycatch back to sea dead or dying, resulting in a giant waste of marine life—around 27 million metric tonnes a year.
Bycatch includes many species of unmarketable fish and fish too young or small to legally keep. It also includes sharks, sea turtles, seabirds, and whales and dolphins, snared by fishing gear. Fisheries bycatch can have huge cumulative effects on these large ocean animals, many of which are threatened with extinction.
Bycatch is high when fishermen use indiscriminate fishing gears, like trawls, longlines, and gillnets. Trawls are dragged along the ocean floor and catch anything in their path. Gillnets are large vertical net walls and longlines contain thousands of baited hooks. Both will catch any species swimming in the vicinity.
In addition, scientists estimate that 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is lost or abandoned in the ocean each year. This lost gear continues to catch and kill ocean animals indefinitely—a problem known as “ghost fishing.” Scientists estimate that ghost fishing kills upwards of 100,000 seals, sea lions, and large whales annually, as well as countless numbers of birds, sea turtles, and fish.
For years The Safina Center has worked with scientists, regulators, fishing industry leaders, and conservationists to reduce the unintended catch of marine life. We promote effective, practical solutions for the benefit and balance of ocean ecosystems. Low-cost gear modifications or switching to more selective fishing methods can help ocean animals recover.
What You Can Do
Bycatch is a serious challenge to healthy fisheries worldwide but by choosing fish from low-bycatch fisheries, consumers can be part of the solution. The Safina Center’s seafood assessments consider how fishing affects other ocean wildlife as one of its four core criteria. Check out our Healthy Oceans Seafood Guide.