Fisheries bycatch plan under fire

National strategy hopes to reduce the dumping of unwanted fish, sea mammals and other creatures

Posted: Monday, March 17, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Environmental groups are criticizing federal regulators for a new national strategy for reducing the dumping of unwanted fish, sea mammals and other creatures in the nation's commercial fisheries.

The National Marine Fisheries Service will undertake a "comprehensive review" this year of efforts to trim bycatch, with new regulations possibly coming later.

Activists with Oceana, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C., said the strategy falls far short of demands for a better accounting of waste and the closure of fisheries that exceed limits.

"The needless killing of so many creatures is a moral outrage," said Charlotte Gray, a marine wildlife scientist for Oceana.

The Alaska Marine Conservation Council just released a report saying that in 2001 more than 261 million pounds of bottom fish were tossed overboard as waste off Alaska.

"They are discarded as bycatch because they are the wrong species, wrong sex, or of no immediate value," said Ben Enticknap of the council.

Federal regulators and spokesmen for commercial fishing fleets counter that great progress has been made in recent years to reduce bycatch, with more to come.

Since 1996, waste in Alaska's biggest offshore commercial fishery, Bering Sea pollock, has been reduced by more than half due to regulations requiring trawlers to keep almost everything they catch, said Trevor McCabe, executive director for the Anchorage-based At-sea Processors Association, which represents a fleet of Bering Sea fishing ships.

The council report criticizes bottom fish trawlers in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska for accidentally catching more than 100,000 king and chum salmon in 2001. McCabe said the industry is working to push the figure down.

This season is the second in which trawlers are working under self-imposed contracts to reduce salmon bycatch, with violators subject to fines, McCabe said. The industry also is working on technology to help salmon escape from nets, he said.

McCabe said bycatch poundage is small compared to the huge amounts of fish processed.

Waste has declined substantially in recent years. According to the council report, 6.5 percent of bottom fish caught in 2001 in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska were discarded as waste - down by more than half from 15.1 percent in 1997.

In the giant pollock fishery, waste is lower still, McCabe said.

"We're using 99.5 percent of everything we catch," he said.

The council report notes other commercial fisheries do not have such a clean record. In the Atka mackerel fishery, which occurs mostly off the Aleutians, more than 12 million pounds of unwanted sharpchin and northern rockfish were caught and nearly all were tossed, the report says.

In rejecting Oceana's call for more drastic action to reduce waste, NMFS touted measures in place to cut bycatch. They range from requiring excluder devices or other safeguards to prevent the accidental catch of turtles; high-frequency "pingers" to keep porpoises out of nets; and special gear to keep Alaska seabirds from impaling themselves on baited hooks.

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