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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Wasted Bycatch

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Nancy Lord, a commercial salmon fisher on Alaska’s Cook Inlet, says part of the overfishing crisis is that a huge amount of the fish caught is going to waste.


CURWOOD: The Northwest Atlantic isn't the only place suffering an overfishing crisis. In fact, the United Nations says all of the world, 17 major fisheries, are either at capacity or in decline. Commentator Nancy Lord says the real tragedy is that a huge amount of the fish being caught is just going to waste.

LORD: In Alaska's Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, more fish are thrown back dead than are landed by American fishermen in all the North Atlantic: on the order of half a billion to a billion pounds per year. In New England's shrimp fishery, the weight of by-catch exceeds the weight of shrimp landed. In the Gulf of Mexico, shrimp trawls catch an average of 10 pounds of non-target species, mostly juvenile fish, for every one pound of shrimp.

This dirty fishing, in which non-targeted fish species - turtles, marine mammals, and invertebrates, are incidentally caught and usually killed - is allowed in our Federal fisheries as a cost of doing business. You might ask who's paying the cost. Certainly not those who scoop up as much as possible, as fast as possible, with non-selective gear and practices. Under current law, those who catch and sell the most product, regardless of how much they also waste, end up making the most money.

The amount of by-catch is bad enough, but then there's a second category of waste known as economic discards. Here in Alaska, much of what gets thrown overboard isn't the wrong species at all. It's simply the wrong sex or size or more than what a boat is prepared to handle. For example, in the Bering Sea rock sole fishery, 61% of what was caught in 1992 was discarded, and a third of that was rock sole. Why keep male rock sole when it's the roe-filled females that are most prized in Asian markets? Why bother with any size that doesn't easily fit through automatic filleting machines?

Just for perspective, consider that a billion pounds of wasted fish would fill 50,000 garbage trucks. A billion pounds is what Americans eat in tuna fish every year. Certainly, that amount of protein could help feed some of the 800 million malnourished people in the world.

Of course, not all of what is thrown overboard is suitable for human consumption. All of that is, however, part of someone's diet. Bigger fish eat smaller fish, and fish of various sizes are eaten by pelagic birds and marine mammals. Alaska's stellar sea lions are in sharp decline and headed for the Endangered Species List. No one seems to know precisely what's the matter, but the best guess is food stress. The young animals aren't getting enough of the pollock they normally feed on.

Clean fishing isn't a radical idea, and it's not all that hard to do. Imagine what would happen if, instead of rewarding those who catch the most fish fastest and waste a lot in the process, we offered economic incentives to fishermen to use modern technology and their own fishing skills to minimize by-catch and waste. Good fishermen would rise to the challenge, and those relics who wouldn't or couldn't change their ways would soon find themselves deep-sixed.

CURWOOD: Nancy Lord is a writer, a commentator for Living on Earth, and a commercial salmon fisher in Alaska's Cook Inlet. She comes to us from member station KBBI in Homer.



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