Bycatch is a frequently used buzzword in the realm of marine conservation, and it refers to any animal caught in fishing gear that was not supposed to be caught. The most common examples are sea turtles that get caught in large trawl nets seeking finfish, whales that get entangled in the line connecting abandoned lobster traps, and sharks that end up caught on long lines intended for tuna. Bycatch causes a lot of problems for fishermen. The most basic issue is that these animals can destroy their fishing gear or take valuable time away from processing the intended species. For example, this ocean sunfish caught in a tuna net will keep the fisherman from catching tuna, and since they have to likely cut it out of the next, it will ruin their gear (Figure 1). Both of those carry monetary costs: the fishermen now have to fish more to recoup their losses as well as purchase a new net.
A less obvious problem that bycatch causes is more of a PR problem. Whales, other marine mammals, and sea turtles are all highly endangered species that also happen to be major magnets for bycatch. When consumers are aware of these lovable animals dying as a result of fishing activity, their purchasing habits can strike a monetary blow much like the loss of gear or fishing time. One example is the dolphin safe label now found on many tuna cans; consumers are able to make buying decisions based on the presence of that label (Figure 2).
Clearly, bycatch is a serious issue with far-reaching financial consequences – so, what should we do about it? What’s the best way to both minimize bycatch? This paper, written by marine economists at the Marine Mammal Commission and NOAA, attempts to answer that question.
Of course, there are already measures in place to reduce bycatch. The current approach is called a “top down” solution to the problem, which is when regulatory bodies (e.g. NOAA, state marine fishery agencies) tell fishermen what they can and can’t do. Some examples of this top down approach include any gear modifications (e.g. a turtle exclusion device), any limitations on fishing locations (e.g. not fishing in marine mammal breeding grounds, or any other bycatch avoidance measures (e.g. pinging devices on nets that keep away dolphins) mandated by an agency (Figure 3).
While these regulations are a step in the right direction, the authors argue that they have limitations and are not as effective as we’d like them to be. One main concern is that these measures cost a great deal of money. In order for the regulations to be effective, they have to be enforced, and paying officers, running awareness campaigns, and drafting the regulations are not cheap. Plus, because these regulations are often sporadically enforced, the regulations are often imprecise and therefore ineffective. While some conservation is indeed happening, there isn’t as much “bang for your buck”.
Furthermore, the regulations do not offer the flexibility to respond to environmental change. Climate change alters the habitat and distribution of marine mammals and sea turtles, so the areas closed to fishing may be useful in the short term but not in the long term as populations migrate with changing conditions.
What to do instead
The authors of this paper argue for a more incentivized approach to bycatch, which would counteract many of the limitations just listed. First of all, they are quick to mention that it’s likely impossible to reduce the amount of bycatch to zero, and in fact argue that that may not be the optimal level of bycatch. As economists, they argue that we as a society need to balance the money spent on preventing bycatch with how much bycatch we actually prevent. For example, as the amount of money spent on these conservation programs increases, bycatch will decrease; but at a certain point, there will likely be a plateau – no matter how much money we spend, bycatch will likely still happen (Figure 4).
The key to the author’s plan to reduce bycatch is through the use of incentives. Much like the easiest way to make your children do things is to give them an allowance or ice cream, it turns out the most efficient way to get fishermen to reduce bycatch is to give them what they want: money (or the opportunity to catch more fish, which is basically the same thing). There are a couple different ways to give out these incentives, which they detail.
- Putting a price on bycatch. This first idea involves the consumer paying for the “cost” of the bycatch. Fishermen will be incentivized to change their gear or fish in less bycatch traveled areas because they want the consumers to by their product. For example, if one cut of cod was $12.99 per pound because it was caught in a whale breeding ground, and an identical cut of cod was $7.99 per pound, which one would you choose? Bycatch now carries a cost, both to the consumer in terms of extra $$, and to the fisherman in terms of lost sales.
- Purchasing offsets to compensate for the animals lost to bycatch. This idea involves a “polluter pays” mindset rather than a “consumer pays” model like #1. When fishermen run into bycatch, they diminish the public good – in terms of the value of the animals to the ecosystem and to tourism. As a result, they have to pay for that damage; just like if you broke a glass at a store.
- Providing a reward for reducing bycatch. This idea involves rewarding fishermen for good behavior – much like you give a dog a treat for sitting or laying down. In this case, fishermen can be persuaded to avoid bycatch by earning an eco-label, much like the “dolphin safe” label on the tuna can. This gives them cultural capital in an increasingly “green” market. Another idea in this category is the SmartGear competition, in which governmental agencies and nonprofits subsidize a cash prize for an inventor who designs a new tool to reduce bycatch.
- Cap-and-trade approach to reducing bycatch. Much like cap-and-trade efforts to reduce carbon emissions, in which business owners pay a fee to offset their emissions, this would involve fishermen paying a fee to offset any potential bycatch. They would be able to trade or sell these licenses to bycatch to other fishermen, and fishermen who don’t need them will be able to save money in the long run.
All of these ideas have their pros and cons, but the major pro of all of them is that their costs are less and they have the potential to bring higher benefits than the current “top down” regulations. Additionally, all of these allow for the flexibility to change as the climate changes. Hopefully we’ll see more of these enacted in the future!
Engage: What method do you think is the most effective? The least effective? Tell me what you would do to reduce bycatch if you were in charge of a fishery association!
Hi and welcome to oceanbites! I recently finished my master’s degree at URI, focusing on lobsters and how they respond metabolically to ocean acidification projections. I did my undergrad at Boston University and majored in English and Marine Sciences – a weird combination, but a scientist also has to be a good writer! When I’m not researching, I’m cooking or going for a run or kicking butt at trivia competitions. Check me out on Twitter @glassysquid for more ocean and climate change related conversation!