What is bycatch?

Bycatch is the term for marine creatures that are accidentally caught in fishing gear intended for other species. Bycatch is a real concern around the world, especially for species at risk.
 / ©: William W. Rossiter / WWF-Canon
Sperm whale, stranded dead. Jaw broken from escape attempts.
© William W. Rossiter / WWF-Canon

Bycatch consists of:

  • Fish that are too small
  • Fish under moratoria (i.e. that have already been fished to low levels)
  • Marine mammals, turtles, birds and other organisms
  • Cold-water corals and other vulnerable bottom-dwelling organisms that are crushed or dislodged from the seafloor.

Every year fishermen throw back into the ocean some 30 million metric tons of dead fish caught as bycatch. That equals 25% of all fish caught in the world. In the fisheries on the Grand Banks, for example, the rule is that bycatch should not make up more than 5% of a total catch, however, bycatch rates routinely exceed that level and have reached as high as 80%. Furthermore, bycatch of valuable commercial species are marketed – even if those species are endangered and their fisheries are closed.

Many species, including dolphins, whales, seabirds, sea turtles, and cold-water corals are at risk of becoming, or have already become endangered as a result of being caught in fishing gear. Globally, each year 300,000 small whales, dolphins and porpoises die as a result of becoming entangled in fishing gear. As well, commercial longline fisheries catch more than 250,000 loggerhead and leatherback marine turtles annually.

Bycatch is a conservation problem of staggering global and regional significance because it is:

  • Widespread
  • Wasteful
  • Driving species to extinction
  • Inhibiting recovery of species at risk
  • Preventing progress toward sustainable resource use at a time when fisheries and local economies are struggling to stay alive.