Baby fur seal sitting on a rock.

What – or who – is ‘bycatch’?

Far from the eyes of caring consumers, protected and threatened animals are being killed by the fishing industry. This is a 'cost of doing business' that the industry fully accepts.

Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated June 3, 2024

The fish who end up in markets, supermarkets and restaurants, are not the only animals who are killed for ‘seafood’.

With indiscriminate nets and longlines with thousands of hooks draped throughout their ocean home, animals, including whales, turtles, seals, rays, and seabirds, are suffering and dying too.

What is bycatch?

The term ‘bycatch’ is a euphemism. Millions of animals suffer and are killed every year as collateral damage to the fishing industry. Commercial fishing industry practices, including the use of longlines, gillnets, and trawling nets, are indiscriminate and have significant, harmful implications for both ‘target’ species and unintentionally caught wildlife.

‘By-catch’ is the albatross who died a painful death after swallowing a baited hook. It’s the turtle who drowned, unable to escape the path of a trawl net. And it’s the sawfish who couldn’t break free from a gillnet, and suffocated when dragged on deck.

Sensitive animals shouldn’t be collateral damage

Each victim of the fishing industry experiences suffering, and for most, death comes as they slowly suffocate on the decks of ships. If they are thrown back into the ocean, many are injured, in shock, and in some cases already dead or dying.

We would never stand for this extreme suffering of animals on land. But out in the middle of the immense oceans and seas, very few can see their plight.

When a protected species is stressed, injured, or killed by contact with a person, boat, or fishing gear, the industry calls this an ‘interaction’. These ‘interactions’ are so common that the industry has guides for how ship workers should handle all the animals pictured above, to first and foremost prioritise human safety.

This is a global issue devastating marine life. Australia has its own ‘seafood’ industry and also imports most of its ‘seafood’ from other countries including Thailand, China, New Zealand and Norway. It doesn’t matter where it occurs – wherever there is commercial fishing, there is ‘bycatch’.

Created to kill

Fishing nets and lines intended to capture thousands of animals at a time are unsafe for animals by design:

Fishing gear isn’t only a threat to wildlife when in use – discarded and lost fishing gear is just as deadly. According to reports, ghost gear discarded by the fishing industry makes up the majority of large plastic littering the marine environment.

The ‘catch’ also suffers immensely

The suffering of sea animals who are targeted by the fishing industry too often goes unacknowledged.

When large schools are captured and dragged onto ships, fish may be crushed to death under the weight of other animals in the enormous nets. When some fish are pulled from the deeper depths of the ocean, the change in pressure can cause their eyes and internal organs to burst. If they survive being dragged up, they will likely die slowly on board, no longer able to breathe.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

A fish tangled in fishing net underwater.

Fish feel pain – and their suffering encompasses not just physical pain, but stress as well. We are only beginning to scrape the surface of understanding the complex social and inner lives of fish, but we do know that they are self-aware, can use tools, and even have friends.

Is it better to opt for farmed fish?

The farmed fish industry has extensive environmental, ecological, and welfare issues. Wildlife in search of food also gravitate to fish farms. In an attempt to prevent animals from eating fish penned in these underwater factory farms, the industry uses ‘deterrents’ such as lead-filled projectiles, sedation darts, explosive charges or “crackers”Even protected seals are being shot at.

Most people are also surprised to learn that to feed fish in their farms, the industry uses commercially caught wild fish. You can read more about the issues with the farmed fish industry here.

A kinder world for sea animals starts with you

The kindest and most sustainable choice we can make is to leave sea animals in their ocean homes. By opting for ocean-inspired dishes that are friendlier to all, you can help protect marine life while still enjoying all the classics (with a twist!), from ‘fish and chips’ to ‘crabcakes’.

Not sure where to start? Explore delicious, animal-friendly eating with our free Veg Starter Kit, available here, and shape a brighter future for animals and our shared planet with every meal.