This was hard for me to understand. How could we be catching 20 pounds of other, unintentionally caught species for every pound of wild shrimp caught? And yet, there it was in a report by the FAO. While this was at the upper extreme, the worldwide level was a ratio of 5.7:1 for bycatch to shrimp caught.
Bycatch is when non-targeted species are caught in the nets or on the hooks of fishermen. They are usually released over the edge of the boat, back into the water. But this does not guarantee survival. In fact, the stress of being caught and the time spent at the surface is enough to kill any bycatch.
Bycatch from wild shrimp fisheries is due to shrimp trawling, which uses large nets that are dragged through the water, scraping the bottom as they go along ans engulfing everything in their paths. In the case of shrimp, bycatch can be anything from sea turtles (if no turtle exclusion devices are used) to something perfectly edible like red snapper (albeit probably undersized since juveniles tend to live in the same habitat as shrimp). But without a license to keep these species, they are doomed to be thrown overboard, needlessly killed.
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Great efforts have been made to reduce the amount of bycatch in the shrimp fishery. In the Gulf the ratio of bycatch to shrimp used to be 10:1, now it’s down to 4:1. One billion pounds of bycatch used to be wasted every year in the Gulf alone.
The notion that bycatch is so common really bothers me. It seems wasteful, lazy, and unethical. Put in extreme terms, it would be like me throwing away 20 hamburgers for every burger that I eat.
This should make eating shrimp caught in a trawl a very special and treasured experience. After all, many marine creatures gave up their lives just so you could enjoy it. And yet eating shrimp has become so casual that “endless shrimp” specials have become common.
The shrimp fishery isn’t the only one guilty of regularly tossing bycatch by any means (other bottom trawling fisheries include groundfish, cod and squid). But as the number one seafood consumed in the world, it is something to think about. In the Gulf of Mexico alone, which accounts for 90% of the US shrimp fishery, 150 million tons of shrimp were landed in the past decade. 90% of the shrimp we eat comes from farms now, which hosts its own set of problems, but at least there are no other species fished with them.
There are some great sources of wild prawns available though, like the spotted prawn fisheries on the west coast (Oregon in particular) that use traps instead of nets. There is talk of them still damaging the bottom but at least traps are more selective than nets as far as catch is concerned.
How does the bycatch problem change the way you look at shrimp?