Taken by accident: Report shows bycatch in US fisheries

Fisheries By LAINE WELCHJune 30, 2012 

A first-ever accounting of bycatch in U.S. fisheries has been achieved by federal scientists in a user-friendly report that aims to set a baseline for the accidental takes of fish, marine mammals, seabirds and other creatures by fishing gear.

The National Bycatch Report, based primarily on 2005 data, shows fish landings and estimated bycatch ratios of nearly 400 types of sea creatures by gear type and region. It is part of an effort to track changes in bycatch over time, according to NOAA Fisheries, and to help managers meet mandates to preserve the nation's fisheries.

Here's a sampler:

• The total estimate for fish bycatch was 1.2 billion pounds on U.S. landings of 6 billion pounds. The Southeast region of the U.S. led all others with total fish bycatch of nearly 683 million pounds -- meaning two-thirds of their catch is getting tossed. Alaska ranked second for fish bycatch at 339 million pounds on 4.5 billion pounds of fish landed.

• By far the fishery with the most bycatch is Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawl, followed by Gulf of Alaska flathead sole and rex sole trawl.

• For marine mammal bycatch, nearly 1,900 from 54 different species were caught by accident in U.S. fisheries, with the Northeast region leading at almost 1,300 animals. Alaska ranked almost at the bottom for marine mammal bycatch with 36 harbor porpoises, fewer than 10 Steller sea lions and fewer than three humpbacks, killer whales and harbor seals.

• Alaska led all other regions for seabird bycatch at 7,280 in 19 fisheries. Nearly half of the birds were fulmars, followed by sea gulls.

The report has 78 pages of Alaska charts covering 27 fisheries and 91 fish stocks. At a glance:

In general, bottom trawl and bottom longline fisheries had the highest bycatch ratios, mostly of groundfish. Other fisheries with high estimates included sablefish and Pacific cod longline fisheries and pot cod fisheries in the Gulf and Bering Sea. Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands pollock trawl was among the lowest levels of bycatch.

The National Bycatch Report makes seven recommendations for improving Alaska's fisheries and bycatch assessments, including hiring 13 full-time staff and providing nearly 30,000 observer days at sea. NOAA Fisheries plans to provide an abbreviated update of the report in 2013, according to Chris Rilling at NOAA headquarters in Maryland. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/by_catch/bycatch_nationalreport.htm

FLOOD OF CHILEAN SALMON

Salmon surge -- As predicted, farmed salmon from Chile is swamping U.S. markets, with first quarter imports of 18 million pounds up more than 56 percent from the same time last year.

A deadly virus crushed Chile's multibillion-dollar fish farm industry four years ago but since then growers have worked with a vengeance to regain their market share in the U.S. That market is primarily fresh, user-friendly salmon fillets.

Food industry tracker Urner Barry said other countries, like Norway, can't even come close to the amount of fish Chile is sending to the U.S. More than 35 million pounds of fresh fillets were imported from Chile through March, a 114 percent increase.

Chile is expected to produce 700,000 metric tons of whole salmon this year -- more than 1.5 billion pounds -- just slightly below Alaska's total poundage last year. The oversupply of Chilean farmed fish has pushed down fillet wholesale prices to $3.40 a pound, a drop of $2.30 from last year. Urner Barry said a few factors are stemming the surge: a lack of Styrofoam boxes for packing/shipping, and a lack of boats to pump fish from the net pens for processing.

GOING FOR SCALLOPS

Scoopin' scallops -- Alaska's scallop fishery gets under way on July 1. A fleet of just three to four boats fishes for weathervane scallops from Yakutat to the Bering Sea, with most of the catch coming from waters around Kodiak. Weathervanes are the largest scallops in the world, with a shell diameter averaging 10 inches. It can take up to five years for scallops to reach market size and they can live up to 20 years.

Scallop boats drop big dredges that make tows along mostly sandy bottoms of strictly defined fishing regions and they are closely monitored by onboard observers.

"All boats must carry observers," explained boat owner Jim Stone. "It's a heavy cost at around $350-$400 a day. But we accept that in order to go into the areas and make sure our bycatch and impact are minimal."

Crews on scallop boats catch, package and freeze the shucked meats and can remain at sea until Thanksgiving. Scallop meats are the adductor muscle that keep the shells closed. They are a wildly popular delicacy and can pay fishermen up to $10 per pound.

This year's Alaska catch has dipped a bit from the usual nearly 500,000 pounds to just more than 417,000 pounds, the lowest harvest in four years. It's pricey scallops that each year nudge Dutch Harbor out of the top spot for the nation's most valuable seafood port. Dutch has the most landings by far but New Bedford, Mass., has held the lead for value for 11 years running -- due to East coast scallop catches that can top 50 million pounds of shucked meats.


Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting, contact msfish@alaska.com.

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