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Seafood FAQ: Targeting bycath problems
Buyers traverse the ins and outs of fisheries bycatch to help guide seafood-purchasing decisions
February 01, 2005
Bycatch — all the other marine life a fishing vessel captures while harvesting targeted fish and shellfish — is one of several key indicators of a fishery’s sustainability.
With increasing marketplace interest in purchasing environmentally sustainable seafood, bycatch is a complex and important piece of the puzzle for seafood buyers — whether they are incorporating sustainability into their purchasing criteria or have just heard the term tossed around — to understand. Here is a primer.
Q. What is bycatch?
All other marine life captured by a fishing vessel other than the target species. Bycatch, also known as discards, can include the wrong size of the target species, other species of fish, starfish, shellfish, jellyfish, sea birds, turtles and marine mammals. The most problematic bycatch issues involve deaths of endangered species of sea turtles and marine mammals like dolphins and seals or catching young fish from depleted stocks.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 1996 defined discards as “that portion of the catch which is returned to the sea” for whatever reason. Some bycatch goes back to the water unharmed while some dies; FAO says it is impossible to estimate how much bycatch survives.
But there are varying definitions. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council defines bycatch as any part of the catch that must be released. Anything that can be legally kept, even if it is not the target species, is not considered bycatch, according to the council.
Q. Why should buyers be concerned about bycatch?
When fishing fleets catch too many of the animals they are not after, the door is open for dramatic disruptions in seafood supply. In late 2000, for example, a court order kept Hawaiian longliners from fishing off the islands to protect endangered sea turtles, disrupting swordfish markets.
Bycatch often means waste, posing an ethical issue of environmental responsibility and a potential economic loss of future value from a fishery.
Q. What does bycatch have to do with sustainability?
While there are no formal standards or definitions, sustainable means seafood harvested in a way that promotes long-term health of the resource and the ecosystem.
A fishery’s bycatch profile is one of seven major areas the New England Aquarium analyzes as it recommends the most environmentally responsible fisheries to Ahold USA, one of the nation’s largest supermarket chains.
Then there is a myriad of bycatch-related factors to balance, says Glenn Hovermale, senior conservation associate at the Aquarium. The New England lobster fishery, for example, has had problems with gear becoming entangled with endangered right whales, but otherwise it is a very selective, clean fishery. The evaluation process is a balancing act, says Hovermale.
Q. How much bycatch is usually caught each year?
Eight percent of the total global catch is discarded, according to FAO’s bycatch report. This figure equals 7.3 million tons per year, based on the average global catch from 1992 to 2001(the most recent year for which data is available).
The estimate is dramatically lower than FAO’s 1998 estimate that 25 percent, or 20 million tons, of the global catch was discarded. Different researchers built the estimates in two different ways, so the numbers don’t equate to a 70 percent decline in discards.
Q. What efforts are underway to reduce bycatch?
There are many. In U.S. waters, fishery managers are working on making swordfish longlining and shrimp trawling cleaner fisheries.
A cooperative research study of the Grand Banks swordfish fishery — or Northeast Distance fishery —between scientists and the Blue Water Fishermen’s Association explored an array of fishing changes to reduce endangered sea turtle bycatch. Interactions had shut down the fishery for three years.
When fishermen used a larger, 16/18-gauge circle-shaped hook and mackerel bait instead of the squid that attracts turtles, they cut the incidence of snaring turtles by 93 percent. Use of 16-gauge hooks are now required in the fishery, which re-opened last summer.
Researchers also developed huge, framed nets used to hoist large sea turtles back into the water with minimal damage to the turtle and are now working on making them commercially viable, says Buchanan.
For more on U.S. bycatch-reduction efforts, see the NMFS bycatch Web site at http://nmfs.noaa.gov/bycatch.htm.
Q. How can buyers protect themselves from supply problems due to bycatch?
Chuck Anderson, Ahold USA’s VP of seafood, urges buyers to take a species-by-species approach to bycatch. To predict the likelihood of bycatch-related closures, buyers would be wise to know whether a species they are purchasing is under an effective management plan and how the plan treats bycatch, says Anderson. “If the species is not under an effective management plan the buyer should research the fishery plan further or consider not sourcing from that fishery until an effective plan is in place. The buyer needs to understand how bycatch levels can trigger a closing of fishing areas,” he says.
How can seafood buyers research bycatch associated with certain species?
The FAO report, available for download at http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2004/50302/index.html (see “related links”), lists general bycatch rates by gear type, type of fishery and country.
Globally, shrimp-trawling fisheries have the highest rates, averaging around 62 percent. Shrimp trawling and harvesting of many finfish species account for more than 50 percent of the total estimated discards while representing 22 percent of total global landings, according to the FAO report. Most purse seine, handline, trap and pot fisheries have low discard rates.