Fishermen sometimes catch and discard animals they do not want, cannot sell, or are not allowed to keep, creating what we know as bycatch. Bycatch can be fish, but also includes marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds that become hooked or entangled in fishing gear.
Bycatch is a complex, global issue that threatens the sustainability and resiliency of our fishing communities, economies, and ocean ecosystems. Bycatch of protected species, such as sea turtles and marine mammals, remains a significant threat to recovering dwindling populations. We are committed to minimizing bycatch in U.S. fisheries to ensure our fisheries are sustainable and protected species are given the best chance to recover.
$2.4 million for bycatch research projects
NOAA provides approximately $2.4 million annually to researchers to find innovative solutions to bycatch.
99+ percent reduction of dolphin bycatch in the yellowfin tuna fishery
The Marine Mammal Protection Act paved the way for domestic and international agreements that have helped reduce the bycatch of dolphins in the yellowfin tuna fishery by more than 99%.
2,641 less seabirds caught as bycatch
Alaska longline fishery seabird bycatch was 3,712 birds for 2010, compared to 6,353 birds for 2005.
Fishing Gear Impacts
We work with the fishing industry and other partners to develop regulations and technology-based fishing gear modifications to reduce bycatch of non-target species. Our ability to reduce bycatch depends on data collected by our National Observer Program. Fisheries observers track where, when, and how many protected species become hooked or entangled in fishing gear. Once bycatch reduction measures are implemented, observers also help to monitor their effectiveness.
Marine Mammal Bycatch
The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires us to develop and implement plans to prevent the depletion of certain marine mammals that are seriously injured or killed in commercial fisheries and assist in their recovery. Teams of stakeholders recommend measures for reducing marine mammal bycatch through regulatory and voluntary measures.
Sea Turtle Bycatch
Bycatch is one of the most serious threats to the recovery and conservation of sea turtles. Many U.S. fisheries have rules in place to reduce sea turtle bycatch, and cooperative fishing gear research with fishermen is ongoing. In the Southeast, we worked closely with the trawl fishing industry to develop turtle excluder devices that reduce sea turtle deaths from shrimp trawl nets.
Dolphin Safe Tuna
Protection of dolphins is a unique concern for the purse seine tuna fishery of the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, where tuna and dolphins are known to closely associate, leading to incidental catch of dolphins. The Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act of 1990 and other international agreements mandate tuna tracking programs and other dolphin conservation efforts for this region.
Seabirds can tell us a lot about the marine ecosystems they inhabit. They travel long distances, are near the top of the food chain, and are relatively easy to study compared to underwater animals. However, they can also be caught incidentally by some types of fishing gear, a problem that NOAA Fisheries and partners around the world are working to address.
We work globally to reduce bycatch in fishing operations and address illegal fishing practices to reduce the incidental catch and mortality of fish and other animals including marine mammals, sea turtles, seabirds, and sharks. Our international work builds on our domestic efforts and includes participation in international agreements, training and education of foreign fisheries, development of international standards and best practices for fishing operations, and enforcement of international laws.
Conservation & Management
We work with fishermen, industry, non-government organizations, and academia to find approaches and strategies for reducing bycatch, seabird interactions, and post-release mortality of protected species and in federally managed fisheries.
National Bycatch Reduction Strategy
We are committed to minimizing bycatch in U.S. fisheries to ensure our fisheries remain sustainable and protected species are given the best chance to recover.
We developed the National Bycatch Reduction Strategy in coordination with our partners. The objectives and actions of the strategy build on past successes and guide our efforts to reduce bycatch on a regional, national, and international scale.
Addressing Risks to Protected Species from Fishing Gear
Fishing gear can accidentally capture protected species, such as marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds. We work with the fishing industry and other partners to develop or modify fishing gear and practices to minimize bycatch of protected species and reduce the mortality rate for marine life that is incidentally caught. Fishermen use many different types of fishing gear to target their catch.
Marine Mammal Bycatch
The Marine Mammal Protection Act is the primary way that we govern the incidental catch of marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions during commercial fishing operations. The 1994 amendments to the MMPA made several key changes to how bycatch of marine mammals in commercial fisheries are regulated:
- A goal for reducing incidental mortality and serious injury of marine mammals to rates approaching zero.
- Policy for distinguishing serious injury to marine mammals.
- New criteria for classifying commercial fisheries according to the level of incidental mortality or serious injury of marine mammals.
- A requirement to report when a marine mammal has been killed or injured during commercial fishing operations to the Marine Mammal Authorization Program.
- A prohibition on intentionally killing marine mammals.
- A mechanism for issuing permits to incidentally take endangered and threatened marine mammals.
- An authority to place fisheries observers on vessels participating in any fisheries with frequent or occasional marine mammal mortality or serious injury.
- Take reduction plans and teams dedicated to reducing the incidental take, or catch, of specific marine mammal populations that interact with commercial fishing operations.
- Partnership with NOAA’s marine debris program to reduce impacts to marine mammals from lost or abandoned fishing gear.
We also issued a final rule in 2016 requiring nations exporting fish and fish products to the United States to be held to the same standards as U.S. commercial fishing operations. This rule is intended to reduce marine mammal bycatch associated with international commercial fishing operations. We have a long history of working collaboratively with other nations to address international marine mammal conservation, and this rule marks a significant step forward in the global conservation of marine mammals and expanding international collaboration for the best stewardship.
Sea Turtle Bycatch
Bycatch is a serious threat to the recovery and conservation of marine turtle populations. In addition to working with fisheries observers to monitor the bycatch of protected species like sea turtles, we have several measures in place to reduce sea turtle bycatch.
West Coast and Pacific Islands
We require certain measures, including fishing gear modifications, changes to fishing practices, and fishing closures during certain times and in certain areas to reduce sea turtle bycatch in the Hawaii and California-based pelagic longline fisheries and the California and Oregon drift gillnet fishery.
Mid-Atlantic and Southeast
Similarly, we have measures including fishing gear modifications, changes to fishing practices, and fishing closures during certain times and in certain areas to reduce sea turtle bycatch in pelagic longline, mid-Atlantic gillnet, Chesapeake Bay pound net, and Southeast trawl fisheries for shrimp and flounder.
In the southeast Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, we have worked closely with the trawl fishing industry to develop turtle excluder devices (TEDs) to reduce the mortality of sea turtles caught in shrimp trawl gear, where they can drown. A TED is a grid, made of metal bars, that is fit into a trawl net. Small animals, such as shrimp, pass through the grid into the mesh bag at the end of the trawl and are caught. When larger animals, such as sea turtles (as well as sharks and sting rays) enter the trawl net, they are stopped by the TED and are able to exit through an opening either at the top or bottom of the net. TEDs that are large enough to exclude even the largest sea turtles are now required in shrimp trawl nets and NOAA Fisheries gear experts continue to work with the shrimp fishing industry to develop new and effective ways to reduce bycatch.
We are currently involved in cooperative research projects focused on fishing gear designed to reduce sea turtle bycatch in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic pelagic longline fisheries, the Hawaii-based deep-set longline fishery, the Atlantic sea scallop dredge fishery, the Chesapeake Bay pound net fishery, and non-shrimp trawl fisheries in the Atlantic and Gulf.
International Sea Turtle Efforts
As sea turtles are highly migratory and therefore range across ocean basins, it is critical for the United States to work with other countries to promote sea turtle conservation internationally. Given NOAA Fisheries’ jurisdiction in the marine environment, a significant portion of our work is focused on mitigating sea turtle bycatch in commercial and recreational fisheries.
We work both domestically and internationally with a variety of partners to protect and conserve seabirds. Our National Seabird Program uses several key statutes combined with priorities like ecosystem-based fishery management and climate science strategic planning to achieve its goals:
- Mitigate bycatch of seabirds and other species throughout U.S. waters and through international partnership efforts.
- Promote seabirds as ecosystem indicators. Seabirds can provide a lot of information about the marine ecosystems where they are found. As highly migratory, near-apex predators, they provide links across trophic levels, space, and time, and are easily studied relative to other underwater marine species.
Bright streamers that hang off fishing lines are a recent technology innovation to reduce bycatch of seabirds, including endangered short-tailed albatross, in the West Coast groundfish longline fishery. This helps seabirds spot the fishing line in the sky and prevent entanglements.
Reducing global bycatch is a major priority for NOAA Fisheries. Our international work builds on our efforts in the United States and reflects the laws that drive our mission, such as the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Endangered Species Act. We work within regional fisheries management organizations and global organizations such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. We also support bilateral and multilateral cooperative work on the ground, including data collection and projects to improve bycatch mitigation technologies.
Science & Technology
Science and technology helps develop innovative solutions to help reduce bycatch in commercial fisheries. Working with the fishing industry and other partners, we work to accurately monitor and estimate bycatch and research and develop tools to reduce incidental catch of protected species and non-target fish.
Fisheries observers and at-sea monitors are our eyes and ears on the water. NOAA Fisheries uses fishery observers and at-sea monitors to collect data from U.S. commercial fishing and processing vessels, as well as from shore-side processing plants and receiver ships.
Observers and at-sea monitors are professionally trained biological scientists who gather data first-hand to support science, conservation, and management activities. The high-quality data they collect help monitor federal fisheries, assess fish populations, set fishing quotas, and inform management. Observers also support compliance with fishing and safety regulations.
Fishing is becoming increasingly tech savvy. Widespread use of GPS and fish finders has made it easier to find the fish. And now, technology holds promise in helping fishermen keep better track of their catches and supplying NOAA with data to sustainably manage our marine fisheries. NOAA Fisheries is investing in technology fishermen use to track their catch. These new technologies might make data collection more accurate, timelier, and more cost efficient.
We are working to fully-realize the promise of electronic monitoring and reporting by guiding the use of the technologies and not letting them guide us. This involves finding thoughtful, workable solutions to the numerous fishery-specific technical and policy issues presented by the adoption of new technologies.
Following national policy guidance [LINK: Policy Directive for Electronic Monitoring], we created regional plans to identify, evaluate, and prioritize implementation of promising electronic technologies. Learn more about our regional electronic technologies plan progress reviews:
Atlantic Highly Migratory Species
South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean
Estimating the amount of bycatch in commercial fisheries is a critical first step necessary to understand where we can improve bycatch reduction measures through monitoring, gear modification, or regulation. When bycatch estimates are available, they might be included as a component of overall fishing mortality during a stock assessment or status evaluation. Therefore, bycatch estimates are essential to effective management of all marine resources.
The National Bycatch Report compiles bycatch estimates for U.S. non-target fish, marine mammals, seabirds, and sea turtles of the United States at the fishery and species level. The report evaluates where reliable quantitative bycatch information exists for federally managed commercial fisheries and fisheries with relevant data collection programs. It also documents bycatch estimates and estimation methods for all fisheries with available information is available. In addition to reviewing the state of bycatch data and estimation, the report establishes a baseline for tracking changes in bycatch over time, and is designed to assist the agency in meeting legislative mandates for bycatch reduction, guiding policy, and setting priorities.
We work with our partners in the fishing industry to reduce bycatch through innovative technical solutions to keep fisheries sustainable and recover vulnerable species. Here are several ways technological solutions are helping us gain a “net advantage:”
Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program
The Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program supports the development of technological solutions and changes in fishing practices designed to minimize bycatch. The mission of the program is to find creative approaches and strategies for reducing bycatch, seabird interactions, and post-release death of non-target species in federally managed fisheries.
We award grants annually to promising proposals focused on specific areas of bycatch reduction science and implementation. Recent highlights from previous awards include:
Use of real-time maps to identify butterfish hotspots, reducing butterfish bycatch in the Northeast longfin squid fishery by 54 percent in two years.
Use of artificial illumination in the West Coast ocean shrimp trawl fishery, reducing bycatch of protected eulachon by up to 91 percent.
Use of a modified gillnet that reduced sturgeon interactions by more than 60 percent in Virginia and North Carolina.
Cooperative research is when the fishing industry, fishermen, and other stakeholders partner with federal and university scientists to collect fundamental fisheries information. The collection of information on fisheries resources through cooperative research assists scientists and managers by supplementing the data currently collected through existing federal programs. Information collected through well-designed and scientifically valid cooperative research programs is useful in improving the information base for single species, as well as multi-species and ecosystem assessments. Ultimately, this additional information will improve the evaluation of fisheries’ stock status and the management of fishery resources. The information provided through cooperative research programs can cover a wide range of research areas, including bycatch monitoring and reduction.
Saltonstall Kennedy Grant Program
The goal of the Saltonstall-Kennedy grant program is to fund projects that address the needs of fishing communities, optimize economic benefits by building and maintaining sustainable fisheries, and increase opportunities to keep working waterfronts viable. One of the primary areas of focus for grant applications is bycatch reduction techniques. Bycatch reduction projects recommended for funding in 2016:
Improving the design of lobster traps to limit groundfish bycatch in the Gulf of Maine.
Using LED lights to reduce bycatch in the West Coast ocean shrimp trawl fishery.
Comparative testing of off-bottom trawls to target Georges Bank haddock while limiting incidental catch.
Reducing Release Mortality
Release mortality is used to describe seemingly live animals of varying condition at capture that then die when released. Release mortality is another complex issue associated with bycatch, because it is often difficult to determine what happens to an animal after it has been caught alive and then released. Release mortality can occur in both commercial and recreational fisheries for several reasons, including how a fish is handled, how long it is exposed to air, whether it is injured during the fishing process, or whether it experiences thermal shock and/or pressure changes during ascent. Release mortality also can occur later as a delayed response to stress or injury sustained during capture or handling. Release mortality occurs in both commercial and recreational fisheries, as well as with many types of fishing gear.
Scientists are striving to better understand the science behind release mortality for non-target fish. A 2016 Action Plan for Fish Release Mortality Release Science outlines the steps we are taking to get a better estimate of release mortality and how that could result in more accurate estimates of total catch. A newly developed SMART tool, or multi-attribute rating mechanism, can also help scientists and managers prioritize fish discard and release mortality research, addressing data gaps and fisheries that need additional analysis.