Study: U.S. Fishing Fleet Among World's Most Wasteful

The U.S. fishing industry discards nearly one-fifth of its catch, according to a new study. And although several fisheries have taken steps to reduce this unwanted "bycatch," researchers say the U.S. fleet is still one of the most wasteful in the world.

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Every year American fishermen catch five million tons of seafood, and every year they throw a million tons back into the water, usually dead or dying. What gets tossed back often includes rare or threatened species, including dolphins and sea turtles. The rest is just fish that nobody will eat. Fisheries managers call it bycatch. Fishermen say they're hauling in much less of it these days, but as NPR's John Nielsen tells us, a new report shows there's still a huge amount of waste being dumped into the water.

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

The National Marine Fisheries Service issues an annual report on the state of the nation's fisheries, one that shows how many fish are being caught and sold by pollack fishermen in Alaska, crabbers in the mid-Atlantic, shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico and so on. Fisheries expert Andy Rosenberg of the University of New Hampshire says a key set of numbers has long been missing from these annual reports, however: so-called bycatch figures that show how many fish were caught by mistake.

Mr. ANDY ROSENBERG (University of New Hampshire): And it's rather surprising that that hasn't been done before. Nobody's actually added up the numbers and tried to be comprehensive and say, OK, what do we know about every fishery?

NIELSEN: Rosenberg's a co-author of what he calls the first comprehensive survey of bycatch in US waters, which is largely based on numbers from 2002. What it seems to show is that American fishermen are now throwing more than 20 percent of what they catch back overboard. Rosenberg says young, small fish are the most frequently discarded life forms, fish that might have someday sold for lots of money if they'd been allowed to grow. Rosenberg says the bycatch problem is hard on the environment and the economy.

Mr. ROSENBERG: It's essentially wasted labor. You know, if you have a lot of bycatch then--and stand there and shoveling it overboard, you know, that's not good for fishermen and it's not good for fish.

NIELSEN: The new report concludes that bycatch numbers vary tremendously from region to region. At the low end are Alaskan fishermen who throw out only 1/10th of what they catch. At the high end are shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico who throw out four pounds of bycatch for every pound of shrimp they keep.

Critics of this paper say it's slightly out of date. They say bycatch levels have fallen sharply in recent years as fishing fleets have started using nets and hooks that keep unwanted fish in the water. Shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico say they have cut their bycatch in half, for example. Larry Hodson is a shrimp processor based in Texas.

Mr. LARRY HODSON (Shrimp Processor): The numbers have come down drastically, and they're not being given credit for what has happened. And, of course, in addition, our shrimp fleet in the Gulf has probably dropped by at least 30 to 40 percent over the past few years in the total number of vessels fishing.

NIELSEN: Spokesmen for the National Marine Fisheries Service say they're confident that bycatch levels will keep falling in the future. Rosenberg says he hopes that's true, but thinks the feds need to keep pushing for change. For example, he thinks bycatch totals should be set for entire fishing fleets, as they are in some Alaskan waters right now. When those levels are exceeded, the entire fishery would be closed. That would drive a lot of innovation, says Rosenberg.

Mr. ROSENBERG: You know, fishermen are really good at figuring out how to do things, how to configure their gear and how to set their gear in order to keep working.

NIELSEN: The new report was published in a scientific journal called Fish and Fisheries. John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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