WASHINGTON — U.S. fishing vessels, including the North Pacific trawl fleet operating off Alaska’s coasts, annually discard up to 2 billion pounds of fish and marine wildlife including sharks, sea turtles and whales that fall into their nets accidentally, an environmental group’s report to be released Thursday concludes.
“Bycatch” — the term for fish and ocean-going wildlife not targeted but caught by fishing fleets — “harms ocean wildlife, wastes important food resources and undercuts the economic success of our nation’s fisheries,” the report by the Washington, D.C.-based group Oceana concludes. Oceana also has a regional office in Juneau.
In “Wasted Catch: Unsolved Problems in U.S. Fisheries,” Oceana lists nine clusters of U.S. fishing vessels they identify as the nation’s most “dirty,” accounting for half of all bycatch.
Among them: the Gulf of Alaska fleet that targets flounder and sole, California drift gillnet fishermen active in Northern California and shrimp trawlers in the Gulf of Mexico. Oceana also cited five Atlantic fisheries from the waters off Cape Cod and New Jersey to the eastern Florida coast.
The group estimated that up to 22 percent of all fish and wildlife hauled up in nets is discarded every year.
The report says that gillnet fishing erects “walls of death” because mile-long nets are either set on the ocean floor or drift under the waves, sweeping up all sea life. Trawls, like those that operate off Alaska, “bulldoze the oceans” with enormous nets dragged across the seafloor, capturing almost everything in their path. They also damage habitat, the report said.
Report author Amanda Keledjian said drift fishing takes place in the Pacific Ocean north of the Channel Islands astride Central and Northern California. The report said 16 vessels with a fishery valued at $1.1 million are involved in this kind of fishing, and their primary target fish populations are swordfish and thresher sharks.
About 63 percent of their haul between 2008 and 2012 was bycatch, the report said, including 21 whales, 290 dolphins and 237 seals and sea lions. Many are air-breathers that drown when their swept into the nets.
In the Gulf of Mexico, trawlers use nets the length of a football field to troll the waters for shrimp.
The report said those trawlers discarded 64 percent of what they took in. Their bycatch consisted primarily of sea turtles, 50,000 of which are killed annually, the report said. That number is within limits set by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees the nation’s fishing industry.
Turtle excluder devices are commonplace on Gulf trawlers but “their effectiveness is limited because they are frequently used improperly,” the report said.
In the North Pacific’s Gulf of Alaska, Oceana said, 35 percent of the flounder and sole trawls are discarded, representing 34 million pounds of fish, mammals and birds. Some of the fish thrown overboard had commercial value as well, including two million pounds of halibut and five million pounds of cod. Salmon were also caught.
The report said only about 14 percent of the fishery was monitored by independent observers, a number it said was inadequate. It recommended more observers and new rules that would establish limits for non-target species to encourage the fleet to better manage its catch.
Bycatch is not a new issue in the commercial fishing world. The report noted federal regulators and regional resource managers have worked hard to reduce it, even offering incentives such as increased quotas to fishermen who use experimental gear aimed at separating out bycatch or let observers come aboard.
But, the report said, “voluntary measures alone are not enough.” It recommended a halt to drift nets, more accurate bycatch counting and caps when bycatch volume becomes excessive.
One fishing vessel’s bycatch may be another one’s primary target, said Keledjian, the report’s author. Those hunting for red snapper often sweep up grouper, and others discard blue marlin and yellowfin tuna that have commercial markets of their own, she said.
Representatives of the fishing industry say they’ve worked hard to assure that bycatch is minimal.
“Good grief,” said Diane Pleschner-Steele of Buellton, Calif., when asked about the Oceana report. “Those people need to get real.”
Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wet Fish Producers Association, said the California fishing industry has “the most precautionary fish management program in the world. We’ve gone to great lengths to fish sustainably.”
The report was based on federal data contained in the National Marine Fisheries Service’s 2011 Bycatch report, which was updated earlier this year.
But Keledjian, the report’s author, said the data available is bare bones, likely masking the true dimensions of bycatch.
“I’d blame poor data quality before I blame the government,” she said. “The data quality is so poor that (the NMFS) can barely implement law to extent they do.”
NMFS spokeswoman Connie Barclay said officials had scrambled to get a copy of the report. Scientists were reviewing it and not yet able to comment, she said.
Additional reporting by Richard Mauer of the Anchorage Daily News.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story was accompanied by a photo that showed commercial salmon boats from Dillingham. The Bristol Bay salmon fishery was not mentioned in the Oceana bycatch report. It focused on the North Pacific trawl fleet.
Read the Oceana report on bycatch (PDF)
By DAN FREEDMAN