The ocean conservation group Oceana has called out nine of the “dirtiest” fisheries in the U.S. — including two in Florida — for injuring and killing thousands of protected species and throwing away almost half of what they catch.
In a new report, the group says despite progress over the past 10 years, the catch of non-target species, such as sea turtles or fish that are too small to keep known as bycatch, remains a big problem in U.S. fisheries, causing significant economic losses and damage to the marine environment.
“The problem isn’t going away,” said Amanda Keledjian, a marine scientist with Oceana and lead author of the report. “Hundreds of thousands of dolphins, whales, sharks, sea birds, sea turtles and fish needlessly die each year as a result of indiscriminate fishing gear.”
Among the most harmful types of fishing gear, the report says, are open-ocean trawls, longlines and gill nets. Trawls are large nets towed along the ocean floor or near the surface to catch shrimp. Longlines consist of miles of fishing line with thousands of baited hooks set near the surface for catching swordfish and tuna or on the bottom to catch grouper and snapper. Gill nets encircle schools of various fish species, snaring them by the gills. They have been banned in Florida waters since 1995 but are permitted in federal waters under a system of seasons and quotas.
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In Florida, shrimp trawls used along the northeastern Atlantic coast and throughout the Gulf of Mexico and bottom longlines used to catch snapper and grouper in deep Atlantic waters north of Stuart pose the biggest concerns, according to Keledjian. She says thousands of sea turtles are killed unintentionally in southeastern trawl nets each year, despite government regulations requiring boats with bottom trawls to use turtle excluder devices and boats with skimmer trawls to limit tow times. Southeastern trawl fisheries have a 64 percent discard rate and are responsible for killing dusky sharks, which are a protected species, according to Keledjian.
Southeast bottom longlines, the report said, had a 66 percent discard rate, including more than 400,000 sharks in a single year. The loss of sharks — top ocean predators — throws the marine ecosystem out of balance.
Oceana based its report on government figures but says the problem is likely much worse because most fisheries do not document what is caught and thrown back and on-water government observers cover only a small number of fishing boats.
The solution, the report said, is to avoid bycatch by transitioning to cleaner fishing gear, requiring the use of turtle excluder devices in trawls, banning the use of drift gill nets and avoiding fishing in hot spots of unintended species.
Oceana called on the National Marine Fisheries Service to count everything caught in a fishery, including unwanted species; cap the amount of wasted catch using science-based limits; and require cleaner gear and enhanced monitoring.