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U.S. fishing industry throws back a fourth of its catch
Scripps Howard News Service


November 30, 2005

WASHINGTON - While the government is struggling to recover depleted commercial fisheries, statistics gathered by federal marine agencies show that U.S. fishermen are throwing back into the sea more than a quarter of their catch.

Andrew Rosenberg, a fisheries expert and dean of the college of life sciences at the University of New Hampshire, said that the fishing industry's practice of discarding high levels of fish are undermining U.S. efforts to recover depleted fishing stocks off American coastlines.

"We're undermining our own rebuilding efforts," Rosenberg said, contending that most fish discarded back into the sea are either dead or dying. The discarded fish include juvenile fish too small to be brought to market, unmarketable species and species under catch limitations because they are being encouraged to recover.



He said Alaska's fishing industry has made major improvements in reducing wastage - known as "bycatch" in the fishing industry - but much discarding is still being reported along the Gulf Coast and Atlantic seaboard. Rosenberg blamed most of the problem on shrimpers and trawlers who drag the ocean floor with nets made of mesh so fine they don't allow the smaller fish to escape before being scooped out of the sea.

Using data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries division in 2002 and 2003, Rosenberg concluded that about 28 percent of the fish caught in the United States in those years were discarded as bycatch, amounting to almost 1 billion metric tons.

The wastage rates were 59 percent for fish caught in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic, 49 percent in waters off the Mid-Atlantic states, 15 percent off the Pacific Coast and 12 percent in Alaskan waters.

The fishing industry says it is looking at new technologies to reduce bycatch.

"If you think about the process of fishing, you don't want to catch anything that's unwanted or uneconomical. It's not advantageous for fishermen to catch other fish - it just wastes time and money," aid Stacey Viera, a spokeswoman for the National Fisheries Institute.

Viera said the industry is working with organizations like the World Wildlife Fund to come up with gear that's easy for fishermen to use and inexpensive. "It's not perfect now," she said.

U.S. bycatch rates are higher than in other parts of the world, partly because there's no large American market for fish like skate, striped bass and hake that are marketed in Europe. A recent draft report by a U.N. agency estimates that wastage is about 8 percent of the global fish catch.

Ransom Myers, a professor of fisheries biology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, said efforts to bring back the once-plentiful cod off the Grand Banks have been hindered by fishermen catching too many juvenile fish.

"This is an insidious problem because you won't see a recovery as long as there is bycatch," he said.

Rosenberg's study was released Wednesday by Oceana, a Washington-based environmental organization, and comes as the Senate is considering new federal fishing laws. The measures would encourage the development of new technologies to reduce bycatch.

Myers said one successful method used in Alaska to recover some fisheries is to close fishing grounds when bycatch levels are too high, and leave it to fishermen to come up with remedies to overfishing.

Randy Rice, technical director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said that Alaska's program, which has become a model for other fisheries, uses observers on ships to monitor bycatch rates.

Alaska has a better program "than any (other) place in the world," he said. "I certainly think you could take elements of this program nationwide."


Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)
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