More than 50% of the world's total marine catch (approximately 81 million tonnes) is harvested using towed fishing gears (i.e. Danish seines, dredges and otter and beam trawls). As for all methods, the total fishing mortality of these gears comprises the reported (landed) and unreported catch and other unaccounted, collateral deaths due to (i) avoiding, (ii) escaping, (iii) dropping out of the gear during fishing, (iv) discarding from the vessel, (v) ghost fishing of lost gear, (vi) habitat destruction or subsequent (vii) predation and (viii) infection from any of the above. The inherent poor selectivity of many towed gears, combined with their broad spatial deployment, means that there is considerable potential for cumulative effects of (i)–(viii) listed above on total fishing mortality, and subsequent wide-scale negative impacts on stocks of important species. In this paper, we develop a strategy for minimizing this unwanted exploitation by reviewing all the primary literature studies that have estimated collateral, unaccounted fishing mortalities and identifying the key causal factors. We located more than 80 relevant published studies (between 1890 and early 2006) that quantified the mortalities of more than 120 species of escaping (26 papers) or discarded (62 papers) bivalves, cephalopods, crustaceans, echinoderms, elasmobranches, reptiles, teleosts and miscellaneous organisms. Seven of these studies also included the estimates of mortalities caused by dropping out of gears, predation and infection [(iii), (vii) and (viii) listed above]. Owing to several key biological (physiology, size and catch volume and composition), environmental (temperature, hypoxia, sea state and availability of light) and technical (gear design, tow duration and speed) factors, catch-and-escape or catch-and-discarding mechanisms were identified to evoke cumulative negative effects on the health of most organisms. We propose that because the mortalities of discards typically are much greater than escapees, the primary focus of efforts to mitigate unaccounted fishing mortalities should concentrate on the rapid, passive, size and species selection of non-target organisms from the anterior sections of towed gears during fishing. Once maximum selection has been achieved and demonstrated to cause few mortalities, efforts should be made to modify other operational and/or post-capture handling procedures that address the key causal factors listed above.