Reducing bycatch in coral reef trap fisheries: escape gaps as a step towards sustainability

Widespread use of minimally selective fish traps has contributed to the overfishing of Caribbean coral reefs. Traps typically target high-value fish such as groupers (Serranidae and Epinephelidae) and snappers (Lutjanidae), but they also have high bycatch of ecologically important herbivores (parrotfish (Scaridae) and surgeonfish (Acanthuridae)) and non-target species. One strategy for reducing this bycatch is to retrofit traps with rectangular escape gaps that allow juveniles and narrow-bodied species to escape; yet the effectiveness of these gaps has not been thoroughly tested. On the shallow reefs of Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles, I compared the catch of traditional Antillean chevron traps (the control) to the catch of traps with short escape gaps (20 × 2.5 cm), traps with tall escape gaps (40 × 2.5 cm), and traps with a panel of large aperture mesh. With data from 190 24-h trap sets, the mean number of fish caught was 11.84 in control traps, 4.88 in short gap traps, 4.43 in tall gap traps, and 0.34 in large mesh traps. Compared to controls, traps with short or tall gaps caught significantly fewer bycatch fish (–74 and –80% respectively), key herbivores (–58 and –50% respectively), and butterflyfish (Chaetodontidae; –90 and –98% respectively). The mean length of captured fish was significantly greater in gap traps because juveniles were able to escape via the gaps. Escape gaps reduce neither the catch of high-value fish, nor the total market value of the catch. Therefore, using escape gaps could make trap fishing more sustainable without reducing fishermen’s revenues.

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