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U.S. fishing throw-back policy questioned

5/31/2006

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."