A new study from world-renowned cetacean expert Dr Putu Mustika that was led by Dr. Charles Anderson of the Maldivian Manta Marine organization titled “Cetacean bycatch in Indian Ocean tuna gillnet fisheries” has been published.
Its results are both disturbing and very eye-opening to the death and destruction the fishing industry is causing to cetaceans especially dolphins.
While fewer dolphins have been showing up as bycatch in fishing nets it’s not the good news it may seem.
What the study has shown is that the reason behind fewer dolphins being caught in the fishing industry is actually a result of there being fewer dolphins to catch in the ocean.
You may be asking yourself what is bycatch? It’s any creatures caught that aren’t the main target species of the fishers. It’s the leading cause of dolphins and other cetaceans around the world dying at the hands of humans.
Bycatch occurs when the dolphins or other animals swim into nets (usually meant for tuna) and cannot find their way out or get tangled up in the net.
Often times dolphins hunting schools of fish will become trapped when following that school of fish into a net.
The fishing industry’s bycatch of unintentionally caught dolphins adds up to a staggering 4.1 million dolphins from 1950 to 2018 said Dr. Putu Liza Mustika who significantly contributed to the study.
The study focused on bycatch rates of cetaceans specifically in the Indian Ocean where overfishing has become a major problem thanks to little regulation.
Since the 1980s the dolphin population in the Indian Ocean is estimated by the scientists to be at 13 percent of what it was all those decades ago.
Dr. Mustika says that the numbers in the study are in the “ballpark” so they don’t exactly pin down the exact number of dolphins lost but it does confirm the horrific amount of dolphins being killed on average.
“Millions of dolphins [were] accidentally caught between 1950 and 2018, Millions. Not just a few hundreds of dolphins.” She said
In a 2014 study from Dr. Anderson Iran has the highest bycatch rate at 60,000 cetaceans per year followed by India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Oman and Yemen with similar estimates.
“The study includes a number of dolphins (and whale species), including indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, humpback, Risso’s, and common dolphins, the scale of bycatch is almost certainly impacting regional and local dolphin populations. The study states that although tuna catches are increasing, dolphin bycatch stagnated in the 1990s. [It] has since declined, and is therefore unsustainable and impacting populations.”Dr. Sarah Dolman from Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) says.
The issue with gillnets according to Dr. Mustika is that the netting creates a free-hanging wall that varies in length from 100 meters to over 30 kilometers creating a lethal wall of unbreakable monofilament plastic they can’t escape from.
“Gillnets used to be made of cotton or hemp,” Mustika says. “But in the late 50s, they changed it to stronger materials (monofilaments). And also smaller mesh size to catch more fish (to meet humans’ insatiable demand).”
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says, “entanglement in fishing gear is the leading threat for whales and dolphins around the globe. [It’s] estimated to cause at least 300,000 deaths per year.”
“Bycatch has led to the almost certain demise of the world’s smallest porpoise, the vaquita in the Gulf of California,” the WWF adds.
“Several more species are likely to follow if governments and fishers aren’t able to effective means to halt this unwanted and unnecessary cause of morality for cetaceans worldwide.”
Fishing vessels caught about 75 percent of odontocete species (toothed cetaceans) in these gillnets over the last 20 years plus according to Dr. Dolman.
Mysticetes the larger species of whales also known as baleen whales like the blue whale make up some 64 percent of bycatch in these gillnets in the same 20 year period of time.
Outside of cetaceans pinnipeds which are animals like walruses, sea lions and seals come in at a whopping 66 percent of bycatch in the last 20 years.
Sharks too end up as victims of gillnets in the fishing industry. The Sea Around Us initiative at the University of British Columbia researcher Angie Coulter spoke with NPR (National Public Radio) about sharks being caught as bycatch.
“Sharks are apex predators,” she explained. “They hold all of these food chains together. If we’re removing these sharks [from the ecosystem], they really can’t catch up and will decline more and more.”
Currently, fishing operations are catching about 80,000 dolphins every year per 1,000 tonnes of tuna and the study estimates that 174 dolphins on average per that 1,000 tonnes are getting trapped in gillnets.
“Bycatch is one of the main threats, if not the main threat to world-wide dolphin populations,” says Mustika. “If we can make fishing more sustainable, then we help dolphin populations.”
Dr. Mustika recommends that fishers use different gear, like a traditional pole and line but the real solution is to stop fishing altogether.
While Dr. Dolman points out that governments have taken some actions to change the situation including fishing net modifications and fishing bans she says more has to be done.
“The countries who are fishing in the region and the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission is the Regional Fisheries Management Organisation that has responsibility for this issue, need to act, there is much that can be done to better monitor, mitigate report, and enforce dolphin bycatch.”
Dr. Dolman adds that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has created a list of best practice guidelines in an attempt to stop and reduce the bycatch of cetaceans and other marine mammals she thinks “this would be a good place to start.”
While cetaceans like dolphins and whales are in dire need of protection the tuna fish themselves are at high risk of becoming endangered due to overfishing.
Nearly six million metric tonnes of tuna were fished out of the ocean in 2018 and because of the fishing industry, some species are in critical decline just as cetaceans are from it.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says bluefin tuna is critically endangered by the actions of the fishing industry.
“As the methods of catching tuna have advanced over the years, the conservation and management of tuna has not evolved as quickly,” says the WWF.
According to the FAO, most tuna stocks are “fully exploited” with “no room for fishery expansion.”
The director of the Global Tuna Conservation Project Shana Miller in an interview with NPR said: “everywhere tuna swim, they’re being pursued by industrial fisheries.”
The best way to end these practices in the fishing industry isn’t regulations that have proven to be near impossible to enforce. The best way to fix these issues is to go on a plant-based diet.
In this day and age, even vegan fish exists in most restaurants and grocery stores.
Tuno and Good Catch are both brands that offer plant-based vegan alternatives to tuna and other fish.
Tuno founder Doug Hines told Forbes: “Overfishing is a global problem that is getting worse by the day, The number of illegal vessels and underreporting is rampant on the high seas and governments tend to turn the other way.”
CEO of Good Catch Chris Kerr has said “our mission is to create delicious plant-based seafood options, giving people everything they like about seafood, but without the concerns about mercury and other pollutants, ocean harm or overfishing.“
While mock fish and tuna products are a good fishy tasting alternative they may be difficult to find in your area but fret not you can easily make your own!
Just mix some chickpeas, nori (seaweed), and vegan mayo together and you’ll have a “tuna” salad mixture even the most skeptical non-vegan will be shocked at.
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