Bycatch is defined in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act as fish that are harvested in a fishery, but which are not sold or kept for personal use. In other words, bycatch is fish that are caught but not retained (i.e., fish that are discarded). Discards include species that must be returned to the sea by law (regulatory discards), and fish that are discarded at the discretion of the fisherman because they are not economically worthwhile to keep (economic discards).
Discards are a portion of the total catch, which is closely monitored. Fisheries observers and at-sea monitors collect data – including bycatch data – from U.S. commercial fishing and processing vessels. Electronic monitoring (EM) is also being increasingly utilized to help fishermen keep better track of their catch and to collect catch and bycatch data. Monitoring of vessels by observers and EM is comprehensive and provides accurate estimates of discards. For example, in the 2021 groundfish fisheries, 99% of the catch (including discards) in the BSAI and 46% of the catch in the GOA was monitored by an at-sea observer, shoreside observer, or by EM. This information helps to understand where and when bycatch is occurring and to develop improved bycatch reduction measures.
The Council has a long history of developing regulations that prohibit fishermen from fishing in ways that result in high levels of bycatch. For example, regulations in various fisheries prohibit fishing at specific times or areas, may require the use of specific gear or gear modifications, and may restrict the use of catch or the level of bycatch. While the reduction in waste is desirable, bycatch restrictions typically increase costs to the groundfish industry, either by limiting fishing or reducing fishing efficiency. Many of the limited access privilege programs were designed to allow fishermen the flexibility to greatly reduce bycatch in their fishery and increase retention rates of groundfish caught.
One special type of bycatch is prohibited species catch, or PSC. Salmon, crab, herring, and halibut are all prohibited species in the Alaska groundfish fisheries, meaning that regulations prohibit the retention and sale of these species. To minimize the bycatch of these species to the extent practicable, the Council has established prohibited species catch limits and implemented area closures and other measures. Additionally, NOAA Fisheries and the Council have established the Prohibited Species Donation program, a voluntary program that allows participating fishermen and seafood processors to donate salmon and halibut to food banks via a distributor.