Kilometres and kilometres of nets trawling our oceans are deadly. Not only do they entrap intended fish species; they also capture other marine animals that unwittingly stray into their path.

This grisly incidental catch, known as bycatch, sees scores of marine turtles, dolphins, dugongs, sharks and seabirds hauled up onto the decks of fishing vessels and then tossed overboard dead or dying. Globally, bycatch is thought to be the leading cause of death for cetaceans (whales and dolphins). Some populations are even likely to become extinct because of their repeated encounters with fishing gear. But many of these deaths and injuries can be avoided. Good fisheries management takes an ecosystem-based approach. It acknowledges that fishing impacts on non-target species and manages those effects in a responsible manner. Good fisheries management is also based on sound science, which is playing a growing role in addressing the bycatch problem. Such measures couldn't come sooner for many protected species.

Impacted species


Dugongs and inshore dolphins die from entanglement in the gill nets used to catch tropical species like barramundi, threadfin salmon or sharks. This occurs particularly on the Great Barrier Reef and Kimberley Coast. Sharks and rays are targeted by various net fisheries but are also taken as bycatch in line and trawl fisheries, where post-capture mortalities are not well understood. This also occurs predominantly in the Great Barrier Reef and Kimberley regions. Marine turtles are captured by net and trawl fishing activities. Trawl interactions have reduced significantly with the introduction of mandatory turtle excluder devices and other bycatch reduction devices used by the Queensland and Northern Prawn fisheries.

What we're doing

WWF-Australia is tackling bycatch on a number of fronts. We're actively developing and implementing safer fishing gear, pushing for stronger bycatch legislation and educating consumers about the issue.
'Pinkies' or 'Windy Buoys' as they are also known, have been shown to reduce seabird interactions by up to 75%.
© WWF-Aus / Stepping Stone Films

Best practice makes perfect

The adoption of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification is another way we can reduce bycatch and WWF is working to promote MSC accreditation among Australia's major fisheries. This certification includes independent, third-party assessment of the fishery, including its bycatch levels. As part of the process, WWF has helped a number of fisheries implement Fishery Improvement Plans (FIPs), which include measures for reducing interactions with seabirds.

Dugong (Dugong dugon) being released at the 'Rivers to Reef to Turtles' field trip, Howick Islands.
© WWF-Aus / Christine Hof

Taking nets out of service

In Queensland, WWF supported the introduction of three new net-free areas on the Great Barrier Reef coast to safeguard protected species – particularly the most southerly population of snubfin dolphins. WWF also took the unusual step of running a fundraising program to purchase two industrial-sized nets used on the GBR to target sharks and grey mackerel, then immediately took them out of service. This helped to highlight the need for major fisheries reform in Queensland.

WWF-Australia and WWF-Peru is working with industry, scientists and government to develop a plan to improve the fishery to a standard consistent with MSC.
© WWF / Adrian Portugal

Right place, right time, right gear

WWF-Australia is now campaigning for commercial fishing vessels to be electronically tracked, an independent observer program, and regional management arrangements so that local fishers can fish at the right place, the right time and with the right gear to reduce bycatch.


Fishing cannot occur without some unintended bycatch. It's unavoidable. However, many fisheries continue to permit unselective fishing gear, with disastrous consequences. Particularly high relative levels of bycatch are associated with bottom trawling, which has the potential to physically damage benthic sponge, coral and seagrass communities on the sea floor. Longlines and gill nets also commonly cause the drowning deaths of marine mammals and turtles. Nets lost at sea are rarely recovered, posing an ongoing risk for years to come. Where Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing occurs, pirate fishers completely ignore regulations on net mesh sizes, quotas, permitted fishing areas and measures to mitigate bycatch. We will never know how many marine species they leave in their wake. However, improvements in spatial management, vessel electronics (to allow skippers to steer clear of sensitive habitats) and gear modifications (including turtle excluder devices) are available and have helped trawl industries to significantly reduce bycatch levels. Strong leadership within sections of the Australian trawl fisheries have identified a range of solutions in the Northern Prawn Fishery and the South East Trawl Fishery.

The vaquita population has been declining steadily due to accidental bycatch in gillnets.
© Chris Johnson

How can you help

  • Purchase MSC-certified seafood products. If unavailable, request them as a means of rewarding those fisheries that have taken the appropriate steps to certify their fishery.
  • Support campaigns promoting better fishing practices.