The rules would have required lobstermen to create new seasonal nonfishing zones and further reduce their use of vertical ropes to retrieve lobster traps from the seafloor. Entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with many types of ships are the leading causes of right whale deaths.
Maine’s congressional delegation amended a federal spending bill to delay the new regulations until 2028 and called for more research on whale entanglements and ropeless fishing gear. Conservationists argue that the delay could drive North Atlantic right whales, which number about 340 today, to extinction.
This is the latest chapter in an ongoing and sometimes fraught debate over fishing gear and bycatch – unintentionally caught species that fishermen don’t want and can’t sell. My research as a maritime historian, focusing on disputes tied to industrial fishing, shows the profound impacts that particular fishing gear can have on marine species.
Disputes over fishing gear and bycatch have involved consumers, commercial fishermen, recreational anglers and environmentalists. With conservation pitted against economic livelihoods, emotions often run high. And these controversies aren’t resolved quickly, which bodes poorly for species on the brink.
Want to save the whales? Avoid eating lobster, a watchdog says.— The New York Times (@nytimes) September 14, 2022
The ropes used to fish for lobsters often entangle critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, which face extinction in the near future, according to federal wildlife officials. https://t.co/YGPCEVD1bn pic.twitter.com/OeIa1Bvc7H
Millions of tons wasted
Bycatch is difficult to measure. Estimates vary widely, but scientists have calculated that 10% to 40% of total yearly catches worldwide are species that weren’t targeted, including fish, whales, dolphins, turtles and seabirds.
According to the United Nations, global fishery harvests totaled 178 million tons in 2020. Even by the most conservative estimates, then, some 20 million tons are likely wasted annually. Advocacy focuses on high-profile species like sea turtles, dolphins and sharks, but the problem is much more pervasive. Recent studies of U.S. Atlantic fisheries indicate that flounder, herring and halibut are among the species most frequently landed as bycatch.
At the same time, global demand for fish is rising. From 1961 to 2019, world fish consumption grew by an average of 3% annually, and yearly per capita consumption increased from 22 pounds (10 kilograms) to 46 pounds (21 kilograms). Today, fish consumption is split evenly between aquaculture, or farmed fish, and wild-capture fisheries, where bycatch occurs.