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Sea Grant Programs Strike Balance between Protecting Species and Protecting Economies

By Dan Williams, Washington Sea Grant

In commercial fishing, many species end up as “bycatch,” caught unintentionally by vessels targeting other fish. Marine mammals and birds can become bycatch, too. Bycatch is accidental and indiscriminate. If bycatch of a certain species within a particular fishery gets too high, the fishery could be shut down, causing economic hardship for commercial fleets and coastal communities—and higher prices for consumers. Through research, education and outreach, NOAA Sea Grant is addressing bycatch from the Gulf of Maine to the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Alaska.

New Hampshire Sea Grant is working on a project to modify shrimp trawl design to reduce the catch of fish and smaller shrimp. In sea trials in the Gulf of Maine, the new gear not only resulted in larger caught shrimp but also reduced bycatch of herring, a fish that’s important to both the economy and the marine food web, by 90 percent.

In the Gulf of Mexico, Texas Sea Grant is working directly with shrimpers on trawl gear demonstration projects. New gear that was effective at reducing bycatch was also reducing shrimp take by 10 percent—a significant economic hit for the fishery. Recent gear developments are now allowing a better shrimp catch but are more complex and challenging to use. Texas Sea Grant is training the shrimpers through workshops and also distributing new trawl devices to shrimp vessels, helping reduce bycatch and boost a beleaguered industry.

Back on the East Coast, the Rhode Island and New Hampshire Sea Grant programs have contributed to a major success story in the cod and haddock fisheries. Research sponsored by the two programs led to the development of the Eliminator Trawl—new gear that is extremely effective at reducing bycatch of cod, a fishery that has been overharvested, while allowing the capture of haddock, a recovered fishery. Use of the Eliminator Trawl nets has become widespread, boosting Northeast fishery economics by opening previously closed haddock areas and allowing further recovery of the cod fishery. The Eliminator Trawl, which won the 2007 World Wildlife Fund International Smart Gear award, is estimated to have a $30 million impact on the New England economy.

In Alaska’s longline fisheries, short-tailed albatrosses, an endangered species, would become hooked and drown as they attacked sinking baited hooks. Regulations stipulated that a take of six short-tailed albatrosses within a two-year period could interrupt or close Alaska’s $300 million longline fisheries.

Washington Sea Grant launched a suite of research and outreach programs in collaboration with the fishing industry, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reduce seabird bycatch in Alaska’s longline fisheries. The research from this partnership led to the use of “streamer lines” to scare birds away from the baited hooks.  This simple solution proved almost 100 percent successful at eliminating the catch of albatrosses and resulted in an overall eight-fold decrease in seabird mortality.

“A healthy seafood industry requires harvesting techniques that minimize by-catch and damage to marine habitats,” says Dr. Gene W. Kim, Chair of the Sea Grant Safe and Sustainable Seafood Supply Focus Team.  “We support research and new technologies that help keep the seafood industry financially competitive and environmentally responsible.”

Sea Grant programs are making a difference in minimizing the accidental mortality of protected or sensitive marine species from bycatch and other human activities. It all adds up to stability and sustainability, both ecologically and economically.


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