Skip to main content

Cash from trash: Using and reducing fish bycatch

October 28, 2010

Today — thanks to IDRC-supported research — fewer fish are being caught accidentally, and more of the “bycatch” is being processed for human consumption.

Some time ago, the world’s commercial fishers threw away many of the fish they netted. Why? Because a big share of their catch was not the primary target species and fetched a much lower price.

Fortunately, in recent decades both the volume of “trash fish” and the proportion tossed overboard have been declining, thanks in part to pioneering research supported by IDRC during the 1970s and 1980s.


That research, in Guyana and other countries, helped put the bycatch issue on the agenda of a global community that had been skeptical about the extent of the waste. The project has also stimulated development of processing technologies that turn trash fish into valuable food products for human consumption. It’s a win-win solution for everyone.

Unlike the catch-and-release practices so common in sport fishing, many of the unwanted fish discarded by commercial marine operations simply perish. By the time they’re thrown back into the sea, they may be dead or dying. Their loss is a major drain on the stocks of those species that, even if they have low market value, may nonetheless be vital components of the marine ecosystem.

Garbage to gold

Bert Allsopp, IDRC’s associate director of fisheries in the 1970s, advocated international recognition that these discarded fish were a major waste of resources. He advanced the idea that better fishing practices and seafood processing could turn that waste into a commercial opportunity and a rich source of dietary protein for people in developing countries.

Says Allsopp: “Trawl surveys in Guyana revealed that the highly valued shrimp were only a small portion of the total edible catch taken from the nets. I was appalled at the quantity of fish that was being thrown away.”

Focusing the message

The subsequent research that IDRC funded in Guyana sought to understand why and how this valuable resource was being dumped, and to design methods for processing it into quality food products. The project succeeded in helping entrepreneurs develop new processing methods and products — fish patties and sausages, for example — with assistance from the Halifax laboratory of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada.

More important, the project shed light on the vastness of the bycatch problem and pushed the issue firmly onto the international fisheries agenda. A 1980 short film titled Fish Bycatch... Bonus from the Sea reinforced the message by bringing the issue into focus for policymakers, scientists, fishers, and the broader development community.

Good conduct

Solutions centre on complementary strategies. First, the catch of non-target species is being reduced through the use of “excluder” devices on fishing gear, as well as other management practices. Second, in many fisheries, the unavoidable bycatch, or a portion of it, is retained for processing into food products, especially in developing countries — just as the IDRC-supported researchers envisaged back in the 1970s.

Progress in bycatch utilization has been particularly strong in Southeast Asia. In Singapore, for example — a country that imports 90% of its fish requirements — a vibrant seafood processing industry has emerged over the past two decades. The widespread practice of fish farming also reduces bycatch and contributes to the sustainability of species.

Bert Allsopp points out one other lasting impact: “Global assessment of fisheries bycatch and discard has now been accepted as a key aspect of policy in the international Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. The worldwide recognition that the bycatch is unacceptable would not have happened except for IDRC’s push-starting the issue in Guyana nearly 40 years ago.”

The bycatch issue has become mainstream over the years. There is an awakening to the message, by a wider audience, that it’s wasteful to throw away so much fish. The idea of the project [in Guyana] was to make a point: That you can bring in the bycatch and make a profit.

Brian Davy, former IDRC fisheries program officer