A United Nation’s wildlife summit is calling for steps to reduce on a global scale the incidental capture of sea birds, sea turtles, sharks and other nontarget species that get caught in fishing gear, often killing them.
The 12th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Convention on Migratory Species (COP 12), meeting in Manilla, adopted a resolution Oct. 28 to cut down on bycatch and improve data collection on species inadvertently captured. It also asks donor countries to “consider helping developing countries acquire and use relevant technology, and with appropriate education and training” of fishermen.
“Bycatch is a major conservation concern,” Bradnee Chambers, executive secretary of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species, told Bloomberg Environment in a statement. “This threat has been particularly well documented for commercial fisheries using longline, trawl, and gillnet operations.”
Increasingly, pressure from consumers for seafood bearing a sustainably sourced certification also is driving fisheries to focus on bycatch reduction.
More than 120 countries—but not the U.S., Canada or Mexico—are parties to U.N.'s Convention on Migratory Species, also known as the Bonn Convention, which entered into force in 1983.
Protecting seabirds as well as fish and sea mammals is a major part of the effort to limit bycatch, said Barry Baker, an Australian specialist in threatened species management who sits on the COP12 Council for Bycatch.
Seabirds are attracted to bait and fish waste discarded from boats, Baker said. When scavenging behind vessels, birds often get tangled in the fishing gear and drown.
For a species like albatross, which don’t breed until they’re nine years old and lay only one egg per year, this can dramatically reduce certain populations over time, Baker said.
Baker points to longline fishing operations, where a single 25-foot boat can put out thousands of hooks a day, as a particular problem for catching nontargeted species like sharks, sea turtles, and birds. And other methods of fishing, such as bottom trawling, can cause similar issues.
“For instance if you are trawling for shrimp, you will catch one shrimp for every 10 other small fish and organisms you catch,” Baker said.
Tons of small fish, seahorses, and sea cucumbers caught this way are often sold at cheap prices as fish and poultry feed, Baker said.
One of the goals of the Convention on Migratory Species is to collect data, which allows researchers to develop strategies to help fishermen reduce bycatch.
“Just getting people in a room here in Manila gives technical specialists a chance to pass on potential solutions,” Baker said during the Oct. 23-28 summit.
Tuna fisheries in particular have long been accused of causing devastating bycatch. But some fisheries researchers say heightened regulations have led to improvements.
“When I started in the tuna industry back in 1986, somewhere around 130,000 dolphins where killed every year as bycatch from tuna fishing—in 2016, it was around 700,” said Martin Hall, head of bycatch programs at the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, a regional fisheries management organization including the EU, U.S., Korea, and Mexico.
Improved fishing gear makes it easier for dolphins to escape large purse seine nets, which are used to encircle schools of skipjack tuna, Hall said. “Fisherman learned a long time ago it was easier to just look for the dolphins to find the tuna,” he added.
In addition to different nets, Hall says, bycatch can be reduced doing things like fishing at night, when birds are less active, or fishing at depths below most dolphins and sea turtles. There are even hooks which are easier to unhook and remove from sea turtles.
Whales Still Threatened
For decades, bycatch of whales, dolphins, and porpoises has been a major conservation concern that has produced binding legal requirements in both the U.S. and the European Union to monitor and reduce incidents of accidental capture.
In the EU, all cetacean mammals are strictly protected under the Habitats Directive. Despite legally binding requirements to monitor and reduce cetacean bycatch, high numbers of dolphins, porpoises, and whales have experienced impacts that have reduced populations.
In fact, an existing EU bycatch regulation (EC No 812/2004), requiring monitoring and mitigation of some large fishing vessels, is being considered for an amendment that would allow for the use of driftnet gear in the Baltic Sea. The Baltic Sea harbour porpoise is an endangered species, with fewer than 250 mature animals.
“The reintroduction of driftnets into the Baltic could well prove to be the last nail in the coffin for the porpoise population there,” Sarah Dolman, a senior policy manager with Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a U.K.-based nonprofit, said.
Fishermen ‘Taking the Issue Seriously’
But Shuya Nakatsuka of the National Research Institute of Far Seas Fisheries in Japan, told Bloomberg Environment: “I think fishermen are taking the issue seriously.
Nakatsuka said whale bycatch is no longer as big of problem as it once was. Primarily, he says, because most regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) would suffer an economic cost if they didn’t take bycatch seriously.
“From past experience with things like whaling or drift nets, fishermen are aware that by-catch may kill their operation unless properly deal with it,” he said.
In the U.S., an alliance of four environmental groups filed a notice of intent to sue the federal government Oct. 2, for failure to protect North Atlantic right whales who sometimes become entangled in snow crab fishing gear. The government has 90 days to respond to the notice.
Sixteen of the endangered mammals have died off the East Coast of Canada and the U.S. this summer, and current research estimates show the number of right whales remains at 450, according to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.
“Right whales risk spiraling toward extinction if we don’t protect them from deadly fishing gear,” Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, which is one of the four groups planning to sue, said.
The main driver of conservation in fisheries today are consumers, said Hall.
“Fisherman are calling us from around the world because they need information on how to clean up their fisheries,” said Hall.
He points to labeling programs for sustainable fishing such as the International Sustainable Seafood Foundation, and the Marine Stewardship Council.
The council has certified more than 400 fisheries, landing 14 percent of global marine catch by volume. Sam’s Club’s private label Member’s Mark fish and oil supplement products are 100 percent traceable to Marine Stewardship Council-certified fisheries.
“They won’t buy your tuna if it doesn’t meet certification standards. Markets are where the consumers are introducing conservation, and it’s having an enormous influence,” said Hall.