Penguins are not the intended catch of New Zealand deep-sea fishing vessels.

But in footage captured by New Zealand’s Ministry of Primary Industries, there are dead penguins in trawler nets, according to the Guardian.

The footage could be released to the public under the Fisheries Act as part of an effort to expose and limit “bycatch,” the reckless capture of creatures not meant to be caught, but the industry doesn’t want that to happen.

Because it would make them look bad, according to a letter obtained by the Guardian.

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Around the world, governments are reckoning with the staggering scale of bycatch and are crafting policies to reduce it. More than 120 countries recently adopted a resolution to cut down on global bycatch at the UN Convention on Migratory Species in Manila, Philippines, according to Bloomberg Environment.

The resolution also urges members to invest in materials that can reduce bycatch, enact and enforce stronger regulations, improve data collection methods, and develop training programs for fishermen.

Image: Marine Photobank

But seafood companies are pushing back against these efforts because of the increased costs they entail, according to John Hourston of Blue Planet Society who spoke with Global Citizen.

Recently, the European Union enacted a ban on “pulse trawling,” a form of fishing that involves short bursts of electricity to stun fish, in a major win for opponents of bycatch.

Read More: Rising Ocean Temperatures Are Killing the Seafood Millions Need to Survive

But intense industry pressure nearly scuttled the proposal.

Now in New Zealand, industry leaders are trying to follow the example of US factory farms by barring the public from seeing what goes on behind the scenes of the food they buy and eat.

In the US, “Ag-Gag” laws make it a crime to film or photograph what happens in industrial animal operations in several states.

In the letter sent to the New Zealand ministry, five industry leaders asked that the grisly penguin footage and future evidence of egregious fishing outcomes be withheld from the public because it could threaten the industry’s bottom line.

“They [the proposed videos] also raise significant risks for MPI and for ‘New Zealand Inc’,” the letter reads, referring to the government’s industrial oversight agencies, according to the Guardian. The letter goes on to raise flags about employee privacy, trade secrets, and commercial interests.

Read More: 9 Brilliant Ways the UK Is Cracking Down on Plastic Pollution

New Zealand Inc oversees the government’s exports and fishing exports bring in $472 million in annual revenue, according to the Guardian.

Animal and environmental advocates argue that the footage serves a valuable public service by highlighting the harmful side effects of irresponsible fishing practices.

“If the full truth about cetacean and seabird bycatch was known then it would have a disastrous effect on the fishing industry so they’re doing everything in their power to suppress that,” said Hourston of Blue Planet Society.

“We have every right to know what collateral damage is being done to put fish on our plates,” he added. “If we were informed, most people would then say I’m not going to eat seafood, it’s that bad.”

Hourston said that animals such as dolphins, birds, whales, penguins, turtles, and much more are being caught as bycatch at a scale that’s pushing them close to extinction.

Image: WWF/Michael Gunther

In fact, the New Zealand government began monitoring fishing nets to substantially limit bycatch to protect marine life, so the suppression of the footage would seemingly run counter to that mandate.

Currently, the government monitors 25% of deep-sea vessels and then extrapolates bycatch numbers for the entire industry. It’s estimated that for every kilogram of catch, there’s .2 kilograms of bycatch, according to research by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.   

Advocates for the continued monitoring say that the footage provides a powerful deterrence.

“If anything similar to marine bycatch was happening on land, there would be enough outrage to get it stopped,” said Hourston.

“The only thing that’s protecting the industry is that it’s out of sight, out of mind,” he added.


Industrial fishing depends on massive, curtain-like nets that trawl waters and scores of hooked poles to meet the global demand for fish.

This aggressive approach results in the accidental capture of enormous amounts of animals.

Read More: 15 Grassroots Organizations That Are Saving the Planet

The UN estimates that between 20-25% of all fish that are caught in the world are thrown overboard because they wasn’t meant to be caught. That’s roughly 20 million tons of marine life that’s thrown out — and many of these creatures die.

Then there are the discarded remnants of the fishing industry — various nets, hooks, and lines that get left behind.

It’s estimated that up to 300,000 small whales, dolphins, and porpoises get entangled and killed by these materials each year. The single biggest threat to sea turtles, according to the World Wildlife Fund, is bycatch.  

In the Gulf of Mexico, a small species of porpoise called the vaquita has been reduced to less than 30 animals primarily because of the improper disposal of gillnets, enormous nets known as “walls of death.”

This crisis prompted environmentalist and actor Leonardo DiCaprio to call on the Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto to save the species, and various measures were enacted.

Read More: Environmental Hero Leonardo DiCaprio Wants to Change the Way You Eat Seafood

Small creatures like seahorses and sea cucumbers are routinely captured by trawling nets and are then sold as feed for livestock, according to Bloomberg Environment.

Even birds are affected by this phenomenon. The UN’s resolution notes that 19 of the 22 species of albatross face extinction because of how many die from getting caught in nets and other fishing gear.

“My blanket recommendation is do not eat seafood,” Hourston said. “Until the fishing industry can get their act together and stop committing ecocide, until they can come up with a system that tells the consumer what’s killed in the process, then it’s a blanket ban on all industrially caught seafood.”

What’s Next

Image: AP Photo/ Jan M. Olsen

Ultimately, the UN resolution aims to get a better global understanding of the problem of bycatch so that more targeted interventions can be made.

There are some interventions that can already be made, however, according to ocean conservation group Oceana.

Read More: 3 EPA Scientists Were Stopped From Speaking at Climate Change Conference

Switching from traditional hooks to circle hooks, for instance, reduces the likelihood that turtles will swallow them and become injured or die. Turtle Excluder Devices can also allow turtles to escape from nets when they get entangled in them, according to Oceana.

Limits can be placed on the amount of fish that can be taken from certain areas of oceans, reducing the overall likelihood that bycatch will occur, and no-fish zones can be created in areas of high bycatch probability, according to Oceana.

The problem of bycatch ultimately speaks to the broader ills facing the world’s oceans and marine creatures.

Ocean acidification — when carbon absorption increases in waters — is making it hard for infant sea creatures to survive; warming water temperatures are causing mass fish migrations and widespread loss of coral reefs; plastic pollution is harming marine life; more than 90% of the world’s fisheries have been exploited at dangerous levels; and the global shark population has plummeted by 98% over the past 100 years.

Humans have a stake in the decline of oceans, as well — more than 3.1 billion people around the world depend on protein from fish and more than 57 million people are directly employed by the global fishing industry, according to the UN.

Further, the oceans absorb around a quarter of the carbon emissions and generate 70% of the world’s oxygen.

In recent years, strides have been made to reduce bycatch and protect the oceans.

For instance, around 14% of all fish caught globally are in fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, which strives to reduce bycatch.

Read More: This Tiny Island Just Set Aside a Huge Marine Protected Area

More broadly, the number of marine reserves and no-fish zones have also skyrocketed in recent years. As of the end of 2016, more than 5% of the world’s oceans were under formal protection, compared to 1% in 2007.

But more action has to be taken. Global Citizen campaigns on protecting the world’s oceans and you can take action on this issue here.


Defend the Planet

Fishing Companies Are Trying to Hide How Penguins Are Showing Up Dead in Their Nets

By Joe McCarthy