Evaluating the sustainability and environmental impacts of trawling compared to other food production systems

R. Hilborn, R. Amoroso, J. Collie, J. G. Hiddink, M. J. Kaiser, T. Mazor, R. A. McConnaughey, A. M. Parma, C. R. Pitcher, M. Sciberras, P. Suuronen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)
86 Downloads (Pure)


Mobile bottom contact gear such as trawls is widely considered to have the highest environmental impact of commonly used fishing gears, with concern about impact on benthic communities, bycatch, and carbon footprint frequently highlighted as much higher than other forms of fishing. As a result, the use of such gears has been banned or severely restricted in some countries, and there are many proposals to implement such restrictions elsewhere. In this paper, we review the sustainability of bottom trawling with respect to target-species sustainability, impact on benthic communities, bycatch and discards, carbon footprint from fuel use, and impact on carbon sequestration. We compare the impact to other forms of fishing and other food production systems. We show that bottom-trawl and dredge fisheries have been sustained, and where well managed, stocks are increasing. Benthic sedimentary habitats remain in good condition where fishing pressure is well managed and where VME and species of concern can be protected by spatial management. Bycatch is intrinsically high because of the mixed-species nature of benthic communities. The carbon footprint is on average higher than chicken or pork, but much less than beef, and can be much lower than chicken or pork. The impact on carbon sequestration remains highly uncertain. Overall, the concerns about trawling impacts can be significantly mitigated when existing technical gear and management measures (e.g. gear design changes and spatial controls) are adopted by industry and regulatory bodies and the race-to-fish eliminated. When these management measures are implemented, it appears that bottom trawling would have a lower environmental impact than livestock or fed aquaculture, which would likely replace trawl-caught fish if trawling was banned. A total of 83 bottom-trawl fisheries are currently certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, which is the most widely accepted measure of overall sustainability.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1567-1579
Number of pages13
JournalICES Journal of Marine Science
Issue number6
Early online date19 Jul 2023
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2023


  • Ecology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Oceanography
  • carbon footprint
  • Bottom trawling
  • discards
  • bycatch
  • environmental impacts of fishing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science
  • Oceanography
  • Ecology


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