When Sea Creatures Are Accidentally Caught in Nets, It Hurts Us All

This is a guest post from Lee Crockett, director of U.S. Oceans at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

According to some estimates, as much as 40 percent of fish caught around the globe is discarded at sea, dead or dying. We can’t afford to continue this wasteful practice. Stopping the unnecessary squandering of nontarget fish in many U.S. fisheries and reducing the needless incidental killing of untold seabirds, whales and other marine life by indiscriminate fishing gear is central to a new, national approach to ecosystem-based fisheries management.

Fish have few natural refuges from today’s trawlers and industrial fishing fleets. Our modern, high-tech ability to find and catch fish has compounded an age-old problem—the incidental catching and killing of ocean wildlife while fishing for popular sport and commercial species. This waste, also known as bycatch, is widespread in U.S. waters. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, estimated in 2011 that “17 percent of fish caught commercially [in U.S. waters] were harvested unintentionally.” This has serious economic and ecological consequences.

A sea turtle caught in a ghost net

A sea turtle entangled in a ghost net.

Economically, bycatch equates to lost opportunity—precluding potentially more valuable uses of fishery resources and reducing future productivity by killing juvenile fish before they can mature and reproduce. In a recent review of NOAA bycatch data, researchers at Oceana found that “bycatch in the U.S. could amount to 2 billion pounds every year, equivalent to the entire annual catch of many other fishing nations around the world.”

The ecological costs of bycatch are just as devastating. Off the California coast, for example, gill nets—often as long as a mile—are submerged for hours at a time to catch swordfish and thresher sharks. These nets also entangle and kill other animals the fishermen never intended to catch, including whales, turtles, sharks, dolphins and many species of fish. In other words, bycatch is bad for those who fish and even worse for the environment.

What has happened to the Atlantic herring fishery is a prime example. This is one of the most important fish in New England’s waters, providing food for predatory bluefin tuna, whales and seabirds. Atlantic herring has been caught commercially throughout the region for centuries. The rise of modern midwater trawlers, however, has made the problem of bycatch in this fishery worse.

Powerful trawlers, towing nets capable of capturing half a million pounds of sea life in a single pass, are among the largest vessels fishing along the Atlantic Coast. This type of fishing also scoops up a host of other economically and ecologically important species. Independent fishery monitors report that hundreds of tons of young haddock are ensnared in herring nets before they can reach the size that will benefit other fishermen. Data from NOAA records show that over the past two years, the bycatch from trawlers accounted for over 10 percent of all the haddock caught in New England. This is a serious problem for fishermen who depend on sustainable populations of haddock.

Managing fisheries on an ecosystem-wide basis would include meaningful measures to reduce bycatch. To restore and protect ocean ecosystems, federal fisheries managers must proactively adopt management measures to address this pernicious problem. Congress can help these efforts by working with NOAA leaders to create policies that will:

  • Better track bycatch in U.S. commercial and recreational fisheries.
  • Require the avoidance of bycatch.
  • Expand the legal definition of bycatch to include additional ocean wildlife often affected by deadly encounters with fishing gear.

These reforms would provide fishery managers with stronger policies to address bycatch in federal ocean waters. These steps also would support efforts by state and regional officials around the country to rebuild currently depleted species in state waters. In New England alone, millions of taxpayer dollars and countless volunteer hours have gone toward regional efforts to restore habitat for river herring, an effort that is being undermined by ongoing bycatch of the species at sea.

Reducing bycatch must become a key element in our nation’s fishery law if we want to ensure healthy ocean ecosystems and fully realize the economic potential of our commercial and recreational fisheries. The waste of billions of pounds of fish and the indiscriminate killing of thousands of marine mammals, seabirds and other types of marine wildlife must end.


Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing

Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson4 years ago

Ronald W. makes sense. Give him green stars.

Mark Donners
Mark Donner4 years ago

Just enlist the military and bomb the trawlers with all the execs of the fishing companies on board. Problem solved and evil people taken care of..

Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla4 years ago

Poor animals... Poor oceans!

Mandy H.
Mandy H4 years ago

We should be reducing our intake of fish anyway, too much fish is not good for you anyway. I don't eat fish unless I physically can't digest anything else, which has happened before. However these reforms are still a good idea because at the end of the day not everyone is going to stop eating sea food.

Elizabeth Z.
Elizabeth Z4 years ago

Another reason to go vegan!

Ruhee B.
Ruhee B4 years ago

The greed of the human........ Even the creatures who avoid the nets will struggle to find any food because we have taken it all. When we have fished the seas dry we will still have other food to eat - those poor surviving sea creatures will have nothing. The injustice of it all makes me sick!

Lisa D.
Lisa D4 years ago

"According to some estimates, as much as 40 percent of fish caught around the globe is discarded at sea, dead or dying"

What a scary sentence to read.. I never suspected that the percentage would be so high! It truly is shocking!

shari Russell
Shari Taylor4 years ago

I most certainly agree with you. I have read they are working on nets that these unintended marine animals can get out of. Let's pray they are successful and soon.