Alaska comes out looking pretty clean in a new report showing that the U.S. fishing industry discards more than 25 percent of what it hauls aboard vessels each year.
The study by U.S. and Canadian scientists is the first-ever attempt to record the amount of bycatch, or discarded species, by the U.S. fishing industry as a whole.
Bycatch is a "serious problem in the world's oceans" that can disrupt entire food chains and ocean habitats, according to the study, funded by Oceana, an ocean advocacy group.
"It does beg the question, why hasn't this analysis been done by the federal government?" said Susan Murray, associate regional director of Oceana's branch office in Juneau.
The study shows an estimated 1.1 million metric tons were discarded as bycatch in 2002, compared to the total of 3.7 million tons in landings of federally managed fish. Landings count the total weight of fish or other species brought on board fishing vessels.
Bycatch accounted for 28 percent of the total landings by U.S. fishing vessels.
The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization estimates global bycatch at 8 percent of the world's total landings.
The United States "may have higher discard rates than the rest of the world," the authors stated in their study.
Alaska's bycatch was 12 percent of its landings - the lowest bycatch rate among the regions managed by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.
Murray said Alaska's ranking in the report is mostly due to the low bycatch in its largest industrial sector: pollock. "If you look at (other trawl fisheries) ... we have some fairly dirty fisheries," she said.
The study's authors, University of New Hampshire professor Andrew Rosenberg, consultant Jennie Harrington and Dalhousie University professor Ransom Myers, used federal reports and other studies to calculate bycatch estimates for each major U.S. fishery in federal waters.
The authors did not analyze bycatch of turtles, sea mammals or birds, but focused on fish and marine invertebrates. They also did not analyze two of Alaska's major fisheries that occur in federal waters - salmon and crab - because bycatch is minimal for those fisheries.
Alaska has "very enviable rates," said Sue Salveson, an assistant regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau.
Still, the statewide average basically masks the poor record of more destructive fisheries, such as bottom trawling, Murray said.
According to federal data, bycatch in the pollock fleet is less than 2 percent of the catch. The pollock is caught in trawl nets in the middle of the water column, instead of getting dredged from the sea floor.
In contrast, the Atka mackerel fishery in the Aleutian Island archipelago uses "rockhopper" trawl gear that rolls over obstacles on the sea floor - whether boulders or corals.
Certain trawl fisheries in Alaska end up discarding as much as 50 to 60 percent of their catch, said Ben Enticknap, an Oregon-based project manager for Oceana who has analyzed the Alaska trawl fisheries.
Salveson said regional efforts are underway to reduce bycatch in the Atka mackerel and other non-pollock catcher-processor fleets in the Aleutians and Bering Sea.
A cooperative developed for the pollock fishery has reduced its bycatch, Salveson said.
Shrimp and bottom trawl fisheries were responsible for 72 percent of the total U.S. bycatch, according to the study.
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