Bycatch and the Fishing Industries Effect on the Food Chain

In 2018, Americans ate nearly 16.1 pounds of seafood throughout the entire year. Many vegetarians find themselves eating fish because it’s an excellent source of protein. Seafood has been a common meal for thousands of years. But lately, the fishing industry has been under scrutiny because of the amount of damage they are causing through overfishing and bycatch. What do you need to know about where your fish is coming from?

What is bycatch?

Bycatch is the incidental capture of non-target species, such as dolphins, turtles, seabirds, and fish of a different species. Bycatch happens because of the gear that is used in modern commercial fishing. The most common types of gear- longlining, trawling, and gillnets- are incredibly effective. Their effectiveness leads to all sorts of creatures getting pulled overboard that the fishermen don’t want. The creatures are then thrown back overboard, however many of the creatures are already dead by the time they return to the water. In the United States, nearly 2 billion pounds of bycatch are thrown overboard annually. That’s over 10% of all animals caught.

Why do fishermen discard so many animals?

The main reason a fisherman will throw a sea creature back into the ocean, regardless of whether the creatures are alive or not, is because they do not have the permits. To legally catch and sell a fish they must have the permits to do so. Big fishing companies, the kind you might buy from at your local grocery store, have very specific regulations about what kind of fish each boat can catch. Another reason may be because the creature isn’t market-worthy. When seabirds are caught, fishermen feel they have to release them back because there is no way to sell a seabird.

What is overfishing?

Overfishing is the depletion of the stock of fish across the world because of too much fishing. The number of overfished stocks in the world has tripled in the last half a century. It’s estimated that by 2048, all seafood will be gone. But if companies in the fishing industry know about this, why wouldn’t they slow the rate at which they are catching and selling? The answer is simple: it would drive up the price of fish to an absurd amount, and ultimately put them out of business.

How does that affect the environment?

Bycatch and overfishing are causing a huge disruption in the food chain. If sharks, dolphins, and other species at the top of the food chain don’t have any food to eat, their population will die off. After some time, smaller crustaceans and some plants will rapidly increase until they consume all of the plankton and small organisms, then they will die off too. Fish are essential in keeping the food chain running properly, but with bycatch and overfishing, we could see the entire thing collapse.

What’s being done?

Many activist groups are taking action by boycotting unsustainable fishing practices. They believe that using more sustainable gear is important and want people to only buy from places that support sustainable fishing. Some companies are following the activist group’s advice and doing so, but others are having trouble monitoring how much fish and bycatch they are catching, while still catching enough fish to make money and keep their companies running.


Bland, Alastair. “Why 500 Million U.S. Seafood Meals Get Dumped In The Sea.” NPR, 21 March 2014, Accessed 13 April 2021.

Molyneaux, Paul. “Bye-bye bycatch: Net design and electronics help fishermen keep their catch clean.” National Fisherman, 2 April 2021, Accessed 13 April 2021.

NOAA Fisheries. “Understanding Bycatch.”, 2021, Accessed 13 April 2021.

Pellman Rowland, Michael. “Two-Thirds Of The World’s Seafood Is Over-Fished — Here’s How You Can Help.” Forbes, 24 July 2017, Accessed 13 April 2021.

World Wildlife Fund. “What is Bycatch?”, 2020, Accessed 12 April 2021.

World Wildlife Fund. “What is overfishing?”, 2020, Accessed 12 April 2021.

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