Not all of the marine creatures that fishermen trap in their nets end up on your plate. American fisheries discard about 20 billion pounds of the fish they catch every year.
That’s roughly 20 percent of their total haul. It’s also worth at least $1 billion, according to a report released Thursday by Oceana, an ocean-conservation advocacy group.
Discarded marine bounty is known as bycatch — fish or other marine species, such as turtles and crabs, that are unintentionally caught in fishermen’s nets meant for certain other kinds and sizes of fish. Bycatch is either brought to port and thrown out there, or tossed overboard while the fishing vessel is still at sea.
The report estimated the value of unwanted fish if they had been sold rather than tossed using data from the National Marine Fisheries Service’s National Bycatch Report and fishing-vessel information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Oceana report recognizes that fisheries throw out some of their catch for good reason. Sometimes, fish don’t meet certain regulations, may be poor quality, or have little to no market value. But Oceana and other conservation groups say that many fisheries toss out more than they keep. This makes it tougher for fish populations to rebound, and so they steadily decline as fishing keeps up.
In its report, Oceana estimated the value of certain kinds of fish using the volume discard and the market price of a specific species. In the Southeast U.S. in 2010, fisheries tossed out $45 million in sea trout, $27 million in red snapper, $4.2 million in king mackerel, and $3.4 million in bluefin tuna. Every year, fisheries in the New England and the Mid-Atlantic region chuck more than $20 million in sea scallops, $13.5 million in flounder, and $7 million in monkfish. In Alaska, fishermen throw out Pacific halibut, cod, and snow and red king crabs when they don’t have to meet catch quotas for those species. In California, Oregon, and Washington, fisheries regularly toss spiny lobster, rockfish, and sea bass.
Researchers have long argued that bycatch is a chronic problem with economic consequences for both national and global fishing industries. In 1994, the Food and Agriculture Organization found that bycatch was costing the U.S. fishing industry billions of dollars. In 2009, the World Bank determined that bycatch mismanagement and overfishing cost the global economy $50 billion every year.
Now that’s a lot of fish.