Saving millions of fish

August 27, 2011

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THE BIGGEST environmental risk from fishing isn’t that fishermen are too successful at netting their catch but that they’re too successful at catching everything else. Although this problem is commonly associated with tuna fishermen catching dolphins in their nets, it affects a wide variety of species, from right whales to sea turtles and everything in between. However, an innovative program being developed at the New England Aquarium through the Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction offers hope for real improvement. This organization pairs scientists and fishermen to find innovative yet non-intrusive ways to work together to cut down on bycatch without negatively impacting fisheries.

Fishermen have just as much desire to avoid bycatch as conservationists do. After all, there’s no demand for dolphin salad sandwiches or sea turtle sushi. Bycatch doesn’t just harm the environment; it also harms fishermen’s bottom lines. Scientists at the aquarium have been working on simple innovations, such attaching small noisemakers to boats to repel porpoises and other species which have sensitive hearing, and modifications to hook designs so that hooks will only catch fish, not sea turtles as well. These changes come at a relatively low cost and make a significant environmental impact as well.

Marine life weighing a combined 7.3 million tons is killed as bycatch each year, and in some fisheries bycatch outnumbers marine life deliberately caught by a factor of 4 to 1. While much of the conflict between environmental groups and industry in the past has been assumed to be a zero-sum conflict between protecting marine ecosystems and catching more fish, this shows that both sides can work together for their mutual benefit.