Utilizing Bycatch: The Hidden Hazard


For many years, reducing or eliminating “bycatch,” unwanted fish or other creatures incidentally caught by fishermen while seeking other species, has been a goal of fisheries managers.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), defines “bycatch” as

“fish which are harvested in a fishery, but which are not sold or kept for personal use, and includes economic discards and regulatory discards. Such term does not include fish released alive under a recreational catch and release fishery management program.”

Magnuson-Stevens also includes a set of National Standards that provide a framework for fishery management plans and the actions of fisheries managers. National Standard 9 states that

“Conservation and management measures shall, to the extent practicable, (A) minimize bycatch and (B) to the extent bycatch cannot be avoided, minimize the mortality of such bycatch.”

Recently, to further its efforts to reduce bycatch, NOAA Fisheries issued a draft National Bycatch Reduction Strategy (Strategy), which lists multiple approaches that the agency plans to take in order to comply with National Standard 9’s mandates.

Most of those measures make sense. There are too many to list all of them here. However, among other things, NOAA Fisheries plans to:

“Consider whether ‘best practices’ can be developed and applied across managed fisheries and protected species to improve bycatch estimates as needed for fisheries management.”

“Continue to support the development and implementation analyses of species-specific bycatch reduction measures (e.g., circle hooks, TEDs, and ‘hot spot’ area closures), and modify those measures as needed.”

“Improve understanding of post-release mortality of fishery and protected species through the implementation of the Action Plan for Fish Release Mortality Science and current best practices for protected species, respectively.”

It’s hard to argue against any of those efforts.

On the other hand, NOAA Fisheries also intends to

“Encourage research that explores increased utilization of incidentally caught fish that would otherwise be discarded,”

and to

“Support efforts to encourage utilization of discards…”

At that point, the agency’s plans enter uncertain and potentially dangerous territory.

At first hearing, the concept sounds good. All fish sold, even if caught accidentally, are excluded from the definition of “bycatch,” so utilization would certainly reduce the amount of bycatch that’s caught, and most people would probably prefer seeing any fish killed put to use, rather than merely dumped back into the sea.

However, the key issue isn’t whether economic discards can be utilized. The most important question is whether such fish should be killed at all.

By definition, economic discards are composed of fish that currently have little or no market value. The species that comprise such bycatch are likely to be little-studied, and are probably not subject to any federal fisheries management plan. There is a very high likelihood that the impact of fishing mortality on such bycatch species, and on the ecosystems in which they function, is unknown. In the case of some bycatch species (e.g., alewife, blueback herring, American shad), fishing mortality may already be greater than the stock can tolerate.

Utilization of such low-value and no-value species would require the creation of new markets where they can be sold. However, once such markets exist, fishermen will have an incentive to direct effort on species that they previously tried to avoid or, at the least, made no effort to seek out. If such fishermen can find a way to make directed fisheries for such previously unwanted species profitable, there is a substantial risk that fishing mortality of such fish will increase. At the same time, there will be no federal fisheries management plan in place that will allow NOAA Fisheries to determine whether such increased harvest poses a threat to any of the newly marketable stocks.

NOAA should avoid creating such a high-risk situation by prohibiting, rather than encouraging, the sale of any species not included in a federal fisheries management plan.

Any effort by NOAA Fisheries to actively encourage the sale of current economic discards would also frustrate regional fishery management councils’ plans to protect currently unmanaged forage fish stocks. For example, the Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment currently being prepared by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council seeks to “freeze the footprint” of current forage fish landings by prohibiting the creation of new fisheries for many unmanaged forage species until NOAA Fisheries can determine the impact of any such fishery on the health of the stock and the health of the overall ecosystem. Encouraging the sale of economic discards, including those species that constitute forage, would hinder such management efforts.

Instead of seeking ways to utilize economic discards, NOAA fisheries should be concentrating its efforts on developing gear, regulations and procedures that meet not only the letter, but also the intent, of National Standard 9, which is to reduce the harvest of non-target species. Relabeling bycatch, by creating markets for such low-value, non-target species, arguably complies with the letter of National Standard 9, but is not in accord with the conservation imperative, which lies at the heart of Magnuson-Stevens.

While the Strategy contains many well thought out proposals, and is generally worthy of implementation, NOAA Fisheries should not attempt to seek or develop markets for fish currently categorized as economic discards, as the dangers of doing so outweigh any possible conservation benefits. Any such effort must be held in abeyance unless and until there is enough information available with respect to the relevant species to assure that creation of markets for such economic discards will not lead to overfishing or deplete stocks so badly that they become overfished.

In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare noted that, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In a similar vein, fish killed as bycatch, even if labeled with some other name, can still do real harm.

Utilizing economic discards is not the right solution to the bycatch problem. Avoiding such bycatch in the first place is.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and award-winning blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

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