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Wasteful commercial fishing practices could damage ecosystems

| April 8, 2014

You know the old saying, “There’s plenty of fish in the sea?” It’s usually intended as a cliché for discouraged daters, but when taken literally, it turns out to be less true than you might think. (We won’t weigh in on whether or not it’s true for daters.)

Wasteful commercial fishing practices, including over-fishing and a tendency to catch-and-discard, have led to a stunning statistic: U.S. fishermen (and women) throw away two billion pounds of fish per year.

fishing boats

Wasteful fishing practices could lead to a shortage. From Mike Baird.

That number, alarming enough by itself, is particularly concerning given that there is far from an unlimited amount of fish available. If we keep tolerating business, as usual, there could be a major fish shortage sooner rather than later. The impact of a fish shortage would resonate far beyond the menu at Red Lobster — it would have a devastating ripple effect through the entire ecosystem and food chain.

This information comes from a new report released by Oceana, an ocean conservation group. The report has already generated substantial coverage, including a recent feature by Ben Schiller in Fast Company’s Co.Exist.

To arrive at the aforementioned statistic, the folks behind Oceana evaluated “bycatch” levels at U.S. fisheries. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), bycatch is: “Discarded catch of any living marine resource plus retained incidental catch and unobserved mortality due to a direct encounter with fishing gear.”

In other words, bycatch covers fish, marine mammals (e.g. dolphins, seals, sea turtles, sharks, whales) and seabirds that are either unintentionally killed by fishing equipment or intentionally caught and then discarded (either already dead or on their way to death) rather than brought to port for use.

U.S. fisheries didn’t reach two billion pounds per year by discarding a few fish here and there. The Oceana report found that between 17 and 22 percent of all fish caught within U.S. waters is “surplus to requirements.” That’s one out of five fish. And that’s just the average. As Schiller reports, “some fisheries throw away more at sea than they bring to port.”

Dusky Sharks are one casualty of the commercial fishing industry. From Clifton Beard.

Dusky Sharks are one casualty of the commercial fishing industry. From Clifton Beard.

Why on earth is this happening? For starters, modern fishing equipment is not designed for selectivity. Schiller cites “trawler nets the size of football fields” and “50-mile longlines” as culprits. (A long line is, well, a long line with baited hooks attached at intervals.)

Those nets and lines can’t tell the difference between a shark and a halibut, but if the fishery is only equipped to deal with halibut, the shark gets tossed back out to sea or destroyed upon return to port. Schiller says that “in 2010, just two longline fisheries in the South East managed to kill 3,400 dusky sharks between them.” Dusky sharks are categorized as “vulnerable” in the U.S. and “near threatened” worldwide, and yet they’re still a victim of the commercial fishing trade.

So what can be done? Oceana is calling for increased accountability among fisheries, along with “less brutal” fishing equipment, caps on waste-per-fishery, and improved tracking/counting of waste. That will require oversight and regulations from the federal government, which is admittedly expensive. Then again, it’s difficult to quantify the value of an ecosystem.

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About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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