You’ve probably already seen the grim news about overfishing: scientists predict that world food fisheries could collapse by 2050, if current trends continue. That’s because 3/4 of the world’s fish stocks are being harvested faster than they can reproduce; 80 percent are already fully exploited or in decline; and in addition 90 percent of all large predatory fish are already gone.
But the picture gets worse: every year, the U.S. fishing industry throws about 2 billion pounds worth of fish back into the water. A report released last month by Oceana estimates that this amounts to an annual loss of one billion dollars.
This is a huge problem on so many fronts: animal rights, the environment, the state of our oceans’ ecology and, for an industry that represents 82 billion dollars in the U.S. economy, this is a big financial problem.
“The staggering amount of fish thrown away every year in the U.S. represents a real loss, both to fishermen and the future resilience of ocean ecosystems,” said Amanda Keledjian, report author and marine scientist at Oceana. “Fisheries need to take the same steps other successful businesses do to cut waste and increase efficiency. In most cases, fishermen have the means and knowledge to make these changes, but lack the economic incentives to do so.”
Unwanted Bycatch: Fish, Whales, Sea Turtles, Albatrosses
To take just one example from Oceana’s report, it’s estimated that in the South Atlantic and Gulf:
* $100 million worth of fish is discarded in the southeast shrimp trawl fishery
* $4 million worth of target fish is discarded in the Atlantic pelagic longline fishery, including tuna, sharks and swordfish
* $3 million worth of red grouper and $250,000 worth of red snapper are discarded in the snapper-grouper longline fishery
Fishermen throw out what they don’t want for a number of reasons: they didn’t mean to catch them in the first place; regulations prohibit them from keeping the fish; perhaps the fish won’t fetch good prices.
Of course, the victims aren’t just fish. Every year, an estimated 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die entangled in fishing nets, along with thousands of critically-endangered sea turtles. Long-line fisheries also kill huge numbers of seabirds. Over 100,000 Albatrosses die this way every year, and many species are endangered as a result of bycatch.
And the fish, too, are usually dead or dying by the time the fish are dumped back into the ocean.
Coming Up With a Solution
Presumably most fishermen did not take up their career because they wanted to toss their catch back into the ocean, so what action can be taken?
Oceana recommends a three-step approach for the U.S. fishing industry to increase efficiency and cut down on lost value due to bycatch.
1. COUNT: Everything that is caught in a fishery, including bycatch, should be counted. Without accurate estimates of how much fishermen are catching and discarding, fisheries managers have no way to account for the negative consequences of bycatch.
2. CAP: Establishing scientifically based bycatch limits is critical for maintaining healthy fishery resources and for fishermen to avoid financial losses from continued overfishing.
3. CONTROL: Fisheries managers should provide incentives to minimize bycatch and avoid economic losses by using: real-time reporting by external observers who document what the boat is catching and throwing back in; cleaner gear; bycatch reduction devices or other emerging economic tools.
What Can We Consumers Do?
As consumers, we do have some power. Why not:
* Choose to buy sustainably-source seafood and avoid threatened species. Overfishing is driven by global demand; lowering the demand will lower the damage.
* Thank President Obama for expanding the Remote Pacific Islands National Marine Monument, and encourage him to continue to increase Marine Protected Areas, areas of the ocean where natural resources are protected and fishing is either restricted or banned altogether.
* Put pressure on the government to limit fishing subsidies, estimated at tens of billions of dollars per year. Eliminating subsidies of this scale lowers the financial incentives to continuously expand fishing fleets far beyond sustainability.
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