Many of us have a romantic image of fishing: a weather-beaten waterman aboard a small fishing boat, hauling in a handmade rope net as a sou’wester approaches.
Outside our beloved Chesapeake Bay, that romantic image—and the era it evokes—is mostly gone. Today, you rarely buy fish that has been caught by a fisherman on a day boat. Most commercial fishing is industrial and international. There are pilots, crews, trawlers, nets and baited longlines that drift for miles, even radar tracking of schools of fish with increasingly fewer places to hide.
Tragically, a lot of what’s caught using these means gets thrown right back into the sea—dead. It’s called bycatch, and leading ocean scientists now believe that up to 40 percent of the world’s catch may in fact meet this wasteful and unsustainable fate. A comprehensive report by Oceana, a leading conservation NGO, estimates that up to 22 percent of the U.S. catch is discarded each year, amounting to 2 billion pounds.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines bycatch as “discarded catch of any living marine resource, plus unobserved mortality due to a direct encounter with fishing gear.” Bycatch includes plants, fish, birds, mammals and even underwater habitats that get maimed, killed or destroyed by industrial fishing.
As for the animals affected, some are the so-called “charismatic megafauna,” like sea turtles and dolphins, that get caught up in nets. The plight of the dolphins caused public concern in the late 1980s, after a biologist aboard a Panamanian tuna boat took graphic video of dolphins dying in Eastern Pacific tuna nets, and consumers began to boycott canned tuna. The boycott led the U.S. tuna industry to adopt regulations that prevented 95 percent of this bycatch, and a new brand of tuna fish was born: “dolphin-safe.”
There were still critics. “Dolphin-safe” referred only to dolphin bycatch, not the many other fish species also caught inadvertently in those massive nets. And of course the tuna fishery is only one of dozens of international fleets that ply the ocean for countless species.
Bycatch also includes animals less familiar than the dolphins, but just as important: Corals, sponges and other organisms that form the foundation of shallow tropical reefs—and the beauty of our tropical vacations, by the way—can be silted over by dredging and bottom trawling.
Bottom trawlers are one of the worst, as they drag heavy fishing gear over the seafloor. A single bottom trawl for reef fish can imperil the integrity of barrier reef systems, which, depending on their size, can take up to 100,000 years to fully form. In the Northeast, scallop fishermen frequently, and accidentally, catch non-target bottom-dwellers like flounder and halibut.
NOAA identifies bycatch as a major ocean health issue. In 2014, the agency issued a call for proposals for the Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program. Its aim is to develop advanced technology that decreases bycatch by improving fishing gear and monitoring techniques.
There is also an emphasis on reorienting consumer tastes. Eating bycatch can reduce the pressure on overfished stocks like salmon and sea bass. Fin fish that are currently considered bycatch can, with smart marketing, become viable, sought-after fish for our tables.
Take, for instance, the Louisiana Gulf flounder, which is frequently caught and discarded by Gulf of Mexico shrimp fisheries. In 2013, Chef Tim Doolittle—of Emeril Lagasse's renowned Las Vegas restaurant Table 10—decided to feature this tasty fish. Today, it’s a featured dish.