Stowaways and throwaways: Bycatch in the Canadian fishing industry and its unintended consequences
Of all the guilty pleasures we partake in, fish certainly doesn’t seem like it should be high on the list. However, the fish we buy from our grocery stores and food markets come with a heavy unspoken cost: bycatch.
Bycatch is a problem that often gets swept under the rug in the wake of seemingly more pressing issues. However, bycatch represents one of the biggest threats to our ocean’s health and the marine life that lives within. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. What is bycatch, what are its impacts on marine life, and what are some potential solutions to mitigate its impacts?
What is bycatch?
Bycatch is any accidental capture of non-targeted marine life by fishing boats that are unmanaged, unwanted or discarded. It is essentially the collateral damage of the fishing industry.
The most popular forms of commercial fishing practices (trawling nets, gillnets, longlines, and hydraulic dredges) are indiscriminate in what they catch and will scoop up anything that falls in their wake. The result is a lot of bycatch. A study of Canadian fisheries in 2017 found that just 52 per cent of all fish caught by Canadian fishing boats were the target species. The rest was bycatch, comprising over 270 different animal species from sand dollars to dolphins, many of them listed as vulnerable or endangered species.
Around the world, 38 million metric tonnes of sea creatures are unintentionally caught every year. What does this look like? In one year, global estimates of bycatch include:
- 300,000 small whales, dolphins and porpoises
- 250,000 sea turtles, including endangered loggerhead and leatherback turtles
- 100 million sharks, including endangered blue sharks and white sharks (this number includes the sharks targeted by fishing vessels for their fins and caught as bycatch. It’s very difficult to separate these two categories since sharks are often sold for their fins regardless of whether they were intentionally or unintentionally caught.)
- 300,000 seabirds, composed of 27 different species. Seventeen species of albatross in particular face extinction thanks to longlining.
Bycatch can also include members of the targeted species with undesirable characteristics, such as being the wrong sex or size.
Discarded fishing gear, also called ghost gear, can create a lot of bycatch. Every year 640,000 tons of fishing gear are disposed of into the ocean, where they will become death traps and kill an estimated 650,000 animals every year.
Coral and sponges can also be considered bycatch as trawling nets can clear cut whole forests of marine plant life, destroying nurseries, breeding grounds and habitats which act as the cornerstone of entire ecosystems. Every year,40 metric tonnes of cold-water coral is caught and damaged by bottom trawlers in the North Pacific Ocean alone.
What are the impacts of bycatch?
The main issue is that most bycatch has a slim-to-none chance of surviving the experience of being caught, tangled in netting and hoisted onto ship decks. Most of the time, if or when bycatch is returned to the ocean, the animal is dead, dying or severely injured.
The sheer volume of this bycatch leaves gaping holes in the ecosystems, driving animal species to become endangered or extinct, or altering the ecosystem in unexpected ways. Even removing a single species, especially an apex predator like sharks or dolphins, creates cascading damage down the food chain.
Although the animals are getting the short end of this stick, bycatch can also represent a waste of time and effort for fishers. The bycatch costs them bait, and it takes time to pick out bycatch from targeted species and only in certain instances will the fishermen be able to sell bycatch. Since bycatch ultimately damages the ecosystems these fishermen depend on for their livelihoods, bycatch is terrible news for everyone.
What are some potential solutions to bycatch?
In the large-scale fishing industry, some amount of bycatch is unavoidable. However, the sheer volume of bycatch that we are currently collecting and discarding is unsustainable and represents the biggest threat to fish populations and the marine ecosystems they inhabit. With a rapid decline of many fish species worldwide, and with roughly only a quarter of Canadian fisheries considered to be healthy, we need viable solutions quickly to curb the impact of bycatch without impacting the yields of fishing vessels.
While it may seem challenging, there are plenty of practical solutions currently available and more to be created. Here are a few:
Different fishing techniques
One of the simplest ways to reduce bycatch is to modify or change out the gear that fishing boats currently use, while still keeping costs low and profits high. Possible techniques for gear modification include:
- Including “escape zones” in nets which allow for unwanted animals to escape.
- Using “ pingers”, which emit a high frequency ping to alert small cetaceans of the presence of danger.
- Using “whale-safe” hooks in longlining. These hooks are weak enough to allow a large animal to break them easily while still being strong enough that the target species will be unable to get away. Testing of these hooks found a decrease in bycatch without a decrease in yield.
Another way that we can curb bycatch is simply having effective monitoring and documentation of bycatch. Having fishing boats properly record all of their bycatch will provide fisheries scientists with the data they need to make informed decisions on necessary gear modifications. It will also give them the ability to mark certain locations as areas more likely to produce bycatch, which is particularly valuable when trying to avoid vulnerable species.
Better government policies
Over the last five years, we have seen the federal government make some important steps to curb the impact of bycatch, including the restoration of funding for fishery sciences, better transparency with fishing data, and increased marine life protected areas. Most excitingly, there has been an introduction of the new Fishery Monitoring Policy, which requires Fisheries and Oceans Canada to manage their fish stocks sustainably and rebuild the stocks which have suffered decline. Just last year in 2020, the Government of Canada hosted a two-day conference to explore new fishing techniques to limit bycatch and discuss strategies for retrieving ghost gear from the ocean. However, progress remains slow when it comes to implementing the strategies that effectively meet the federal government’s bold commitments.
What can you do?
No one likes to think that their shrimp was caught at the price of sea turtles, or that their tuna came out of the sea sharing a net with strangled dolphins. Moreover, it may seem like these issues are far too big for a single person to fight against effectively. However, there are a few things you can do:
- Pressure our government to promote bycatch-reducing fishing tactics, and greater visibility into bycatch. This could come in the form of voting only for leaders willing to take serious action for reducing bycatch.
- Support nonprofits who are working on researching bycatch or advocating for bycatch reduction.
- If you live along Canada’s coasts, organize a beach cleanup in your community. Cleaning up plastic from our oceans, especially fishing gear, will ensure they can no longer hurt marine life.
Bycatch numbers can be overwhelming and scary, but together we can bring down bycatch to sustainable levels to ensure that the ocean remains an abundant and beautiful place for many generations to come.