Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Bycatch in Global Fisheries

Bycatch is one of the most insidious problems facing marine wildlife.  By its very nature, bycatch tends to fly under the radar of the average citizen–even of the average concerned citizen.

Unlike shark finning or fishing for threatened or endangered species, the damage caused through bycatch does not visibly register in the ultimate “product.”  When people buy shark fins, they are forced to recognize at some level the grisly process that undergirds the market.  But when people buy shrimp or swordfish, they may never think beyond the animal purchased.

Although global fisheries take an incredible toll on non-target species–millions of birds, marine mammals, sharks, sea turtles, and non-target fish are bycaught every year–this havoc is not obvious to the casual consumer.

For many, it is out of sight and out of mind.

What you don't see at the supermarket. Photo credit: AP/Wide World Photos.

What you don’t see at the supermarket. Photo credit: AP/Wide World Photos.

In comments submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service, we encouraged the federal government to strengthen a proposed rule that would limit imports from foreign fisheries operating with high levels of marine-mammal bycatch.  While we will dedicate a future post to the details of the proposed rule and our response, it is first necessary to get a sense of the gravity of the bycatch problem.

The statistics are nothing less than mind-blowing.  A full accounting is the stuff of books–and even then to be served with a jar of salt given the unknown multiplier associated with IUU fishing–but just a few numbers should suffice to get you hopping mad.

  • 650,000 — The number of marine mammals that are killed or seriously injured every year after being hooked or caught in nets and other fishing gear.
  • 31 billion — The dollar-value of fish products imported to the United States in 2012.
  • 6 — The number of nations that import over $1 billion of fish to the U.S. every year (China, Canada, Chile, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand).
  • 93%, 83%, 82%, 57%, and 100% — The respective percentage of marine mammals known to suffer from bycatch (93% of baleen whales; 83% of phocid seals; 82% of toothed whales, including dolphins; 57% of otariid seals and sea lions; and 100% of sirenians, which include manatees and their relatives).
  • 40+ — The number of years that the import provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act has collected dust for want of effective regulation.  Without a regulation to give teeth to the import provision, the vast majority of foreign-caught fish products have been entering the U.S. market in violation of national law.

Help us use the law to fight bycatch by making a donation.

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