Your Definition of Bycatch is Most Likely Incorrect

One thing we can all agree on is that bycatch is a very serious problem that threatens healthy fisheries and healthy oceans worldwide. But unfortunately, one thing we cannot seem to agree on is the definition of the word “bycatch” itself. I have come across many concerned citizens, ocean conservationists, and even fishermen who have conflicting definitions of what they think is considered bycatch, which only compounds the seriousness of this complex issue.

So what is your definition and understanding of the word “bycatch?”

What if a longliner who is primarily targeting tuna also caught some “non-target” species such as sharks, swordfish, opah and other marketable fish on the same set and brought it all back to port to be sold to the markets; do you consider these “non-target” species to be bycatch in this tuna fishery? If you answered yes, you are not alone. But unfortunately, according to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act if you answered yes, you are wrong.


The Definition of Bycatch

The definition of bycatch, as stated in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, is:

“Fish which are harvested in a fishery, but which are not sold or kept for personal use, and includes economic discards and regulatory discards. Such term does not include fish released alive under a recreational catch and release fishery management program.”


Because this definition does not include marine mammals, seabirds, and other resources that fall under the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) responsibility, the NMFS uses the following definition of bycatch for its National Bycatch Strategy and bycatch reduction efforts:

“Discarded catch of any living marine resource, plus unobserved mortality due to direct encounter with fishing gear.”


The same rule goes for all U.S. commercial fisheries. While the definition of the word bycatch can vary internationally, any seafood that is brought to port and sold or kept for personal use (such as bait) in any U.S. commercial fishery is not considered to be bycatch according to U.S. Federal law.


Incorrect Definitions of Bycatch

According to The Safina Center at Stony Brook University:

“Bycatch refers to the unwanted sea life people catch when they are fishing for something else.”

According to Oceana’s “Wasted Catch” report:

“Bycatch is the capture of non-target fish and ocean wildlife, including what is brought to port and what is discarded at sea dead or dying.”

So why is this important? One reason it’s important is because when the world’s largest ocean conservation organization does not understand what bycatch even is, then we have a very big problem. When ocean conservation organizations do not understand what bycatch is, it can lead to scientifically flawed statistics published in reports such as “Wasted Catch” which only amplify the confusion by spreading misinformation about responsible U.S. fisheries to the mass general public. I urge you to please read the Regional Fishery Management Council Coordination Committee’s response letter to Oceana’s scientifically flawed “Wasted Catch” report here. As the CCC points out, failure to understand the definition of bycatch severely undermines the many examples of successful bycatch reduction efforts that have been demonstrated by responsible U.S. fisheries to date.

Another reason it is important to understand the true definition of bycatch is that most of the “non-target” species that are mistaken as bycatch by some folks are actually very important components to the economic viability of several responsible U.S. fisheries. More times than not, fishermen rely on catching other marketable species that are not primarily targeted in order to make any kind of profit at all. But economics aside, it’s also important to understand that more and more consumers are demanding local seafood, and non-target species only add to the abundance and diversity of our U.S. seafood choices.


When NGOs and the general public think byctach means one thing, and fisheries managers and scientists know that bycatch means something else, it makes it more difficult for us all to work together to combat this serious problem as a united front. Until we can all agree on what bycatch really means, I’m afraid we may be doing more bad than good for our oceans.


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