The zoologist Jordi Casamitjana looks at the problem of fisheries bycatch, where the fishing industry catches and kills non-targeted animals in the seas and oceans where they operate, and then throws them away.

It’s more than being sloppy.

Animal agriculture is a nasty business because its operational model is to exploit animals for profit causing them suffering and death at an industrial scale. Those participating in such abhorrent industry engage in destructive violent behaviour of the highest magnitude, equivalent to genocide if their victims were humans. But because they are not humans in a world where non-human animals lack the minimum legal rights, their mass killing does not constitute illegal abuse and murder, but an “accepted” practice by the majority of the population (excluding vegetarians, vegans, and pre-vegans in transition).  

However, of all the types of animal agriculture that there are, there is one that exceeds all the others in terms of scale and destructiveness. One that not only kills more vertebrate animals than all the others per year but which does it in the sloppiest way possible hurting and killing far many more they intended to exploit. One industry so ruthless and shameless that it does not even hide the fact it causes widespread collateral damage every time it “harvests” its unfortunate victims. An industry so careless and messy that is unable to count how many animals it kills every year, and it can only do a rough underestimation based on weight. 

I am talking about the fisheries industry, which every year not only aims to kill trillions of aquatic animals but probably kills more animals it did not aim to kill, who happened to be collateral victims of its sloppiness. The only industry that has a name for all the excess animals it kills, whose deaths will not give them any profit. They call such excess death “bycatch”, and this article will dive deeper to expose how bad this is. 

What Is the Fisheries Bycatch

Industrial fishing waste By Improvise8survive via Shutterstock (1135818785)

Fisheries bycatch is the incidental capture and death of non-target marine species in fishing gear. It can include untargeted fishes, marine mammals, sea turtles, seabirds, crustaceans, and other marine invertebrates. Bycatch is a serious ethical problem because it hurts many sentient beings, but also a conservation problem because it can harm or kill members of endangered and threatened species. 

Non-marine freshwater species that are caught but regarded as generally “undesirable” by those catching them are referred to in the US as rough fish or in the UK coarse fish, and are not normally included in any fishery bycatch assessment. In 1997, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defined bycatch as “total fishing mortality, excluding that accounted directly by the retained catch of target species.” The term “deliberate bycatch” is used to refer to bycatch as a source of illegal wildlife trade.

Technically, bycatch marine animals get classified as such because they are either the wrong species, the wrong sex, or the wrong age compared with the species, sex, and age that was targeted. This means that the target individuals of one fishing vessel may be the bycatch of another, depending on what the vessels intended to catch, according to their business model, the fishing rules they have to abide by, where they are operating, and which jurisdiction applies to them that regulates who they catch and how many (the so-called fishing quotas). Therefore, any animal could become bycatch, and if they are caught and killed as bycatch, this is not a reflection of who they are or what they have done, but of the sloppiness of the fishing people and the industry they are part of.

Bycatch is not only something that worries vegans like me (who do not want any animal to be caught, bycatch or target), but also people who care about animal welfare as it causes avoidable deaths and injuries, environmentalists who understand how destructive allowing bycatch is due to its impact on the sustainability of marine ecosystems, and even some members of the fishing industry, because of the impact on targeted species (especially when the bycatch is from the non-targeted age of the targeted species). There are several reasons why such a waste of life takes place. For instance: 

  • Unselective fishing gear: Some types of fishing gear, such as gillnets and trawls, are indiscriminate in what they catch. This means that they can capture a wide variety of marine animals, including non-target species.
  • Poor fisheries management: Poorly managed fisheries can lead to overfishing, which can increase bycatch levels.
  • Lack of awareness or concern: Many fishermen are not aware of the gravity of the bycatch problem or how to reduce it, or simply do not care.

There have been some efforts to reduce and manage bycatch involving the development of more selective fishing gear and practices, as well as the implementation of regulations and conservation measures, but at the end of the day, the fishing industry is so ruthless and cares so little about sentient life (it does not even recognise that the animals they catch are sentient), that many of such improvements are not very effective and are hardly implemented in the real world (a fishing world which does not tend to give much room for scrutiny as this industry operates in remote locations, such as the middle of oceans).

In 2022, the UK government launched a bycatch mitigation initiative that outlines how it plans to achieve its ambitions to minimise and, where possible, eliminate the bycatch of sensitive marine species, but there is not much evidence that this will work for most of the bycatch victims, and if any of the solutions proposed after the research end up being trying to find new “uses” for the bodies of the non-targeted animals caught, that would not save their lives. 

The Victims of the Fisheries Bycatch 

Turtle on deck of a fishing trawler, who had been caught as bycatch By Tara Lambourne via Shutterstock (2146549687)

According to a 1994 report of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) based on a review of over 800 papers, between 17.9 and 39.5 million tons (average of 27.0 million) of fishes’ bodies were discarded each year in commercial fisheries, the highest quantities being from the Northwest Pacific while tropical shrimp trawl fisheries generate a higher proportion of discards than any other fishery type. 

Ten years later the problem persisted. The US National Bycatch Report First Edition Update 3 for 2019 stated that the estimated fish bycatch for the US commercial fisheries in the NBR for 2014 totalled approximately 837.87 M lb, while associated landings for these fisheries totalled approximately 6,780.27 M lb. As far as 2015 was concerned, the estimated fish bycatch totalled approximately 814.53 M lb for an associated landing of about 6.538.20 M lb.

Today, the problem has not gone away. In 2019, FAO published its third assessment of global marine fisheries discards, which included two new outcomes on bycatch and discards in global marine capture fisheries: 

  • An annual discard quantity of about 9.1 million tonnes (10.1% of annual catches), of which 4.2 million tonnes from bottom trawls, 1.0 million tonnes from purse seines, 0.9 million tonnes from midwater trawls, and 0.8 million tonnes from gillnet fisheries;
  • An annual estimate of fisheries interactions with at least 20 million individuals of endangered, threatened and/or protected species.

According to a report by Oceana, it’s estimated that worldwide, 63 billion pounds of bycatch is caught every year, and according to WWF, about 40% of fishes caught worldwide are unintentionally caught and are partly thrown back into the sea, either dead or dying.

Around 50 million sharks are killed as bycatch every year. The WWF also estimates that 300,000 small whales and dolphins, 250,000 endangered loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) and critically endangered leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), and 300,000 seabirds, including most albatross species, are annual bycatch victims of the fishing industry. 

Bycatch is estimated to be the single largest cause of mortality for small cetaceans. Species such as the vaquita (Phocoena sinus) from the Gulf of California and Maui’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui) from New Zealand face extinction if the threat of unselective fishing gear is not eliminated. A study from 2015 showed that, in Pakistan, 1,200 dolphins were killed every year in tuna gillnet operations.

In addition to fishes and invertebrates, marine mammals are the most commonly caught bycatch in the North Atlantic Ocean, while sea turtles are the most commonly caught bycatch in the Mediterranean Sea. Seabirds are the most common non-fish and non-invertebrate bycatch in the Southern Ocean. An estimated 6,000 seabirds were killed per year in 1997 in the Patagonian toothfish fishery around South Georgia and around 13–14,000 seabirds were killed per year in 2001/03 around Crozet and Kerguelen. One of the main threats to all the species of albatross (15 threatened with extinction, six Near Threatened, and only one considered of Least Concern) is commercial longline fishing. 

The bycatch of Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella) also occurs in the commercial krill fishery of the South Atlantic sector of the Southern Ocean (in 2003, 73 seals were reported by-caught in trawls of one vessel; 26 mortalities and 47 released alive). 

Worst Fishing Methods Regarding Bycatch

Fishing with a trawl By AlenaLitvin via Shutterstock (602951120)

Some of the fishing methods that most commonly result in bycatch are longlining, trawling, and gillnetting. 

Longlining (sometimes called trolling) is a method where hundreds or thousands of baited hooks hang along a single fishing line, which can catch marine turtles, sharks, non-target billfishes and juvenile tunas. Long line fishing lines are an average of 28 miles long and are extended into the ocean off of massive ships. Sea animals often bleed to death while hanging from the hooks, or will die when once pulled up onto the ship. Fishes caught as bycatch on troll lines and returned to the ocean are often hooked through parts of their bodies other than the mouth, causing often fatal injuries. Studies of Chinook salmon, caught by trolling off Alaska, showed that 85% of fishes died from their injuries after being returned to the sea, and 23% of these were hooked through the eye. Around one in every five animals caught on trolling lines are sharks and they are either thrown back or have their fins removed with a knife (for sale in shark fin soup) and then thrown back into the ocean to die a long agonising death.

Trawling is a method where ships drag large nets along the seabed, which can catch almost everything in their path, including coral reefs and marine turtles. A massive net is pulled through the ocean, often between two big ships, and this catches all sea animals who are in the net’s path. When trawling nets are full, they are lifted above the water and onto ships, which causes the suffocation and crushing to death of most of the animals caught. After fishers open the nets, they sort through the animals and separate the ones they want from the non-target animals, which are then thrown back into the ocean, but at that point, they may be already dead.

The highest rate of bycatch is associated with tropical shrimp trawling. In 1997, the FAO found discard rates (bycatch to catch ratios) as high as 20:1 with a world average of 5.7:1. Shrimp trawl fisheries catch 2% of the world’s total catch of all fishes by weight, but produce more than one-third of the world total bycatch. US shrimp trawlers produce bycatch ratios between 3:1 (3 bycatch:1 shrimp) and 15:1 (15 bycatch:1 shrimp). According to Seafood Watch, for every pound of shrimp caught, up to six pounds of bycatch is caught. All these values are likely underestimations (a 2018 study showed that millions of tonnes of fishes from trawler boats have gone unreported in the last 50 years).

Gillnetting is a method where vertical panels of netting are set in the water, which can entangle cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), seabirds, seals and elasmobranchs (sharks, skates and rays). In gillnet fisheries, nets are not pulled through the water but set directly on the sea floor and anchored so that the nets are floating in the water. In theory, only fishes of a certain size should get entangled in the meshes with their gills (hence the name of the net), but gillnets are made from very thin material so that they are nearly invisible not only for fishes but also for other animals. For populations of sea birds, gill nets are especially dangerous if they are deployed in areas where large numbers of sea birds are resting or moulting (and there are no net modifications to reduce seabird bycatch that have proven practicable).

Additionally, traps and pots are suspended in the ocean by fishing lines to bait and catch crustaceans such as lobsters and crabs, and they cause bycatch as the ropes, line and pots are often discarded, resulting in trapped sea turtles, whales and other species. We should not forget that recreational fishing also produces bycatch but at a much lower scale. 

The bottom line is that bycatch is inevitable wherever there is commercial fishing, so any modification of gear, implementation of new regulations, or improvement of enforcement, cannot stop the bycatch, but only reduce it. However, the destructiveness scale of the fishing industry is so big (every year 2.8 trillion fishes are deliberately killed by it) that any reduction, although can save important lives, is just a drop in the ocean. 

The only real solution is abolishing the fishing industry once and for all, and convincing meat-eaters, reducetarians, flexitarians and especially pescatarians about stopping buying and consuming animals from this industry, including the two million tons of farmed fishes’ flesh sold to them by the cruel factory farm side of the industry.  

The cruelty involved in any fishing or farming of fishes is why vegans don’t eat fishes, but the bycatch problem should also awaken environmentalists, marine conservationists, as well as people who care about animal welfare and the health of oceans, and they all should turn their back to this industry and stop being complicit in this waste of life.

An industry that is as sloppy as it is cruel.

“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.