COLUMBIA, S.C. - Heaps of dead fish litter the decks of commercial trawlers each summer after boat captains pull nets from the ocean in their search for shrimp.
Sucked into the expansive shrimp nets, small fish and other marine animals are the unfortunate victims of an industry that, for decades, has dragged the sea floor to scoop up the tasty crustaceans so many diners crave.
Every year, tons of marine animals across the country are accidentally caught in fishing nets and killed - a wasteful occurrence that threatens to deplete marine life, according to a report this week by Oceana.
Similar problems are found when commercial anglers drop rows of hooks in the ocean to catch one type of fish, but bring in other marine animals that wind up dying, the report said.
VULNERABLE SPECIES FALL VICTIM
Sharks and sea turtles are among the animals that die as fishermen try to land seafood for people's tables, according to the report, which relied on federal data. Animals caught in nets or on fishing lines while commercial boats seek other species are known as "bycatch." Oceana wants tighter limits on bycatch to help protect vulnerable species.
"Whether it's the thousands of sea turtles that are caught to bring you shrimp or the millions of pounds of cod and halibut that are thrown overboard after fishermen have reached their quota, bycatch is a waste of our ocean's resources," said Dominique Cano-Stocco, campaign director at Oceana, a national conservation group.
The study by Oceana highlights nine areas of the United States that are among the worst at killing marine life while fishing for other species. Those include fisheries that target snappers and groupers, swordfish and shrimp, according to Oceana.
SHRIMPERS QUESTION CONCLUSIONS
In South Carolina, where the seafood harvest brings in about $25 million a year, no one disputes that shrimping snares unwanted fish.
Typically, fishermen empty their nets on boat decks and pick shrimp from the piles of fish also caught in the netting. The unwanted fish, many of them dead or dying, are then pushed back into the ocean.
Still, shrimpers and several scientists questioned whether the Oceana report represents a fair picture of the bycatch issue.
Larry Toomer, a shrimper and restaurant owner from the Hilton Head Island area, said the state has taken steps to reduce bycatch in shrimp nets. Something must be working because sea turtles seem more abundant, he said of the federally protected species.
Federal rules adopted about two decades ago require shrimpers to include "turtle excluder devices" in nets to allow loggerhead, leatherbacks and other sea turtles to escape if they get caught in the netting. That also allows other large species, such as sharks and rays, to get out of the nets.
The study lumps Gulf and South Atlantic shrimping together, but Gulf shrimpers have been less willing to use turtle excluder devices, said Sally Murphy, a sea turtle expert and retired biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
She and others said the amount of bycatch is dwindling because fewer people are shrimping today than they were years ago.
Despite some improvements, Oceana said the issue remains a problem.
To reduce bycatch, Oceana says the United States should count the amount of marine animals unwittingly caught in commercial fishing ventures; cap the amount of bycatch allowed; and improve fishing gear to cut down on the amount of marine life accidentally killed each year. Fishing also could be done at times of the year when certain marine animals that could be needlessly caught in nets are less abundant, the group said.