Bycatch: The forgotten part of the wasted food story

Thousands of sea turtles are killed by fishing nets each year.

By Ariel Kagan, Sustainability Student Advisor

Wasted food is a hot topic these days. It makes sense—with one in six people in the U.S. experiencing food insecurity, it is a moral crisis that up to 40% of our food is wasted either on the farm, in the grocery store, or in our own homes. But what if that 40% number is actually an underestimate?

So far, the discussion about wasted food has included many issues. Chef Dan Barber has taken a lead in arguing that a lot of the food that ends up in the landfill could be eaten, with just a bit of creativity and rethinking recipes. Other groups like NRDC think a lot about the energy, land, and water that is used in growing food that does not get eaten and the methane contributions of organic matter in landfills. There are also organizations like DC Central Kitchen concerned about the injustice of throwing away perfectly good food—food that may not be the right size or shape but that is equally nutritious—when so many families and children go to bed hungry each night. At the Food Institute, we will soon be announcing a dialogue on this topic in conjunction with White House Council on Environmental Quality to be held later this spring. The issue of wasted food is finally getting the attention it deserves, with the measurement needed to elevate the issue. ReFED, a collaboration of over 30 businesses, nonprofits, foundations, and government leaders, released a report in 2016 that was a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the problems and solutions to wasted food and food loss.

People are shocked to find out how much food we waste as a nation. And they should be. That 40 percent of our nation’s food ends in landfills is an economic, social, and environmental disaster. But imagine what people would think if they knew that this 40% number leaves out an entire category of wasted food?

Bycatch is a topic you are not likely to hear in discussions of wasted food. Bycatch is the non-target marine wildlife that is caught in fishing nets or on fishing lines and is then discarded either at sea or at port. For most people, the idea of fishing conjures an image of standing on the dock casting out your line with a single hook, hoping for a lucky catch. But in commercial fishing it works a bit differently. Longlines can be more than 30 miles long and include more than 12,000 baited hooks, which are left at sea from a few hours to a few days. In that time the target catch – species like squid, mackerel, or halibut—take the bait, but so do many non-target species including other types of fish, sharks, sea turtles, and even birds. Most of these animals do not survive being pulled up through the water column so quickly, or the time on deck before being tossed back. Animals like whales, turtles and birds need air to breath and drown when caught in nets waiting to be reeled in. Trawls are cone-shaped nets that can be up to 330 feet wide and 40 feet high and are pulled through the water column by one or two boats and catch everything in its path. Trawls account for almost 80% of global discards, and are even worse than longlines in terms of destructive fishing. Shrimp trawls in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico harvest up to 10 pounds of bycatch for every pound of shrimp they catch.

Even the Rockefeller Foundation, USDA, and EPA collaboration “Further with Food” website does not include mention of bycatch, from

All in all, bycatch accounts for up to 40% of the global catch, or 63 billion pounds of non-target species per year! In the U.S., the bycatch rate is estimated at around 20% of the total catch, but it’s not well measured. Less than 25% of the stock management plans for U.S. fisheries include any incentive to minimize bycatch, and monitoring and enforcement of bycatch on fishing vessels is limited due to the high cost of deploying observers on boats.

There are things that can be done to combat bycatch in our fisheries. For one, we can do a better job of counting bycatch. On many boats, any non-target species caught in nets is sorted on deck and swept off the boat back into the ocean. This makes sense for fishermen—why would you use up the space in your holds for fish you can’t sell? But it hurts our efforts at understanding what is being caught and how many species are being affected. One way to do this is to require boats to bring their entire catch into port. Another way is to require on board observers or video camera recordings of when the nets or lines are pulled in. The more we know, the better we can tailor our management plans and find ways to sustain vulnerable species.

The second thing that we can do is open our menus to different kinds of fish. Americans eat a huge amount of shrimp, salmon, and tuna; these species make up over 50% of total seafood consumption in the U.S.! When fishermen are only targeting three species, it can lead to a lot of bycatch and wasted fish. There are of course hundreds of other types of fish that we can and should eat. Sablefish, also known as black cod, is a bycatch species in the halibut fishery. I cannot believe that! Smoked sablefish is my favorite thing to order when I go to New York’s Barney Greengrass. A movement is afoot in the chef community to feature these underutilized species. On "Top Chef" just a few weeks ago, chefs were asked to make a dish featuring the fish that came up in the shrimp nets instead of the shrimp. Expanding our notion of what a fish dinner looks like can actually make fishing more sustainable by reducing bycatch and increasing the data collection of these non-target species.

The ReFED report does not include bycatch in its analysis, though it does recommend further study of the issue. And just like wasted food, bycatch is a moral crisis that affects us all. Each year, thousands of sea turtles, whales, dolphins, sea birds, and other important ecological species are caught in nets unintentionally, and this catch often ends up unreported and overboard back into the ocean. A healthy ocean ecosystem is vital for food security in the future. One billion people on earth depend on seafood as their primary source of protein, and many people rely on seafood for their employment and livelihoods. It is critical that we begin to include seafood and bycatch in our discussions and calculations about wasted food.


This story was shared with permission from the GW Food Institute Commentary section. Learn more about the GW Food Institute.

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