The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is currently reviewing its priorities for reducing bycatch, the unwanted ocean wildlife (e.g., fish, turtles, coral, seabirds, etc.) unintentionally caught by commercial fishermen when targeting a different species. NMFS is in the early stages of developing a new National Bycatch Strategy and is asking the public for comments and ideas on ways to effectively minimize bycatch in US fisheries. Marine Conservation Institute has taken part in the process to help ensure that the highest conservation standard is put in place.
Under the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, NMFS has the statutory obligation to monitor and reduce bycatch. Specifically, the national bycatch goal is “to implement conservation and management measures for living marine resources that will minimize, to the extent practicable, bycatch and the mortality of bycatch that cannot be avoided.” While the existing National Bycatch Strategy successfully minimized some bycatch, there is still much room for improvement.
Marine Conservation Institute’s comments on the bycatch strategy highlighted an area that does not receive the attention it crucially needs – the elimination of deep-sea coral and sponge bycatch. Deep-sea coral and sponge communities play important roles in providing biogenic habitat in deep-sea ecosystems: safe places for other deep-sea inhabitants to escape predators and currents; nurseries for young fish; and places for adults to spawn.
Oculina coral reef: Top Photo – left undisturbed, Below Photo: After trawling. Credit: R. G. Gilmore (left) and NURC/UNCW
Some fishing techniques, such as deep-sea trawling, bottom longlines and traps, often damage or destroy deep-sea corals and sponges when targeting fish populations living in these areas. When the fish and shellfish are caught, corals and sponges are often bycatch. Unfortunately, many of these harmful incidents are not effectively reported by fishery observers.
Marine Conservation Institute’s advice to NMFS is to better train fishery observers on coral identification, sponge and other bottom dwelling species. We also recommend that NMFS design a more efficient way of reporting bycatch of seafloor species to help determine how much habitat destruction occurs. We strongly suggest that NMFS keep bottom fishing away from areas of known coral and sponge concentrations and where habitat models predict there to be high abundance of corals and sponges. NMFS should take a precautionary approach when managing fishing in areas with abundant corals and sponges by implementing buffers, as these species are unlikely to recover for decades or centuries.
Marine Conservation Institute also suggests performing further research into the ecology of deep-sea coral communities and their speed of recovery from fishery interactions. Most importantly, a bycatch limit on deep-sea coral and sponge should be put in place, since previous research has shown that setting a limit effectively decreases total catch of corals and sponges.
A more precautionary approach towards the extraction and destruction of marine life is essential to conserving our oceans most important places and species, for us and future generations. Marine Conservation Institute looks forward to NOAA’s new National Bycatch Strategy that focuses on preventing the bycatch of deep-sea coral and sponge.
Cover Photo: Protected deep-sea corals at the Madison-Swanson Marine Reserve in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: NURC/UNCW