Study: U.S. Fisheries Discard 22% of Catch
Efforts Underway to Reduce Waste
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 1, 2005
American fishing operations discard more than a fifth of what they
catch each year, according to a new report by a team of U.S. and
The study, which was commissioned by the marine advocacy group Oceana
and appears in the December issue of the journal Fish and Fisheries,
represents the first comprehensive accounting of the amount of
"bycatch" in the United States. Fisheries consultant Jennie M.
Harrington, Dalhousie University professor Ransom A. Myers and
University of New Hampshire professor Andrew A. Rosenberg used federal
data collected from 1991 to 2002 to calculate which regional fisheries
inadvertently kill the most unwanted fish.
The Gulf of Mexico topped the list, largely because its shrimp fishery
had 1 billion pounds of bycatch -- half the nation's wasted fish in
2002. Gulf shrimpers, which typically drag trawl nets with steel doors
across the ocean floor, discard about four times as many fish as they
keep, according to the study.
U.S. fisheries on average throw away 22 percent, or 1.1 million tons,
of the fish they catch.
"The scale of the problem here is enormous," Myers said, adding that
the annual wasted fish would fill every bathtub in a city of 1.5
million people. "And it's an insidious problem, because we cannot have
the recovery of fish stocks as long as they keep getting caught as
A variety of unwanted marine species become trapped in fishing gear by
vessels seeking a different catch and are then thrown away, including
noncommercial species such as jellyfish and small crustaceans. The
researchers did not include protected species, such as turtles, as
well as mammals and birds in their study.
Southern Shrimp Alliance President Joey Rodriguez, a third-generation
shrimper in Alabama who represents fishermen from North Carolina to
Texas, said that shrimpers have adopted more environmentally sensitive
gear in recent years but that they continue to go after shrimp "the
only way we know how to catch 'em. You're going to catch a lot of
things not trying."
Rodriguez, who said the Gulf of Mexico's shrimping fleet is wasting
fewer fish because overseas competition and recent hurricane damage
has cut its size to half of what it was four years ago, said his
members are open to adopting new techniques as long as they are
affordable. "We just want to catch shrimp," he said.
Bob Mahood, executive director of the South Atlantic Fishery
Management Council, said his region had helped reduce bycatch over the
past decade by demanding that fishing operations adopt different gear.
In the snapper and grouper fishery, the council has barred
entanglement nets, trawling and mesh traps that lure fish with bait.
Most of the region's bycatch consists of commercially "nonessential
species," Mahood said, though he added, "If you look from an ecosystem
point of view, they obviously have some ecosystem value."
Mahood said that his regional council had called on shrimpers in 1996
to use gear aimed at reducing bycatch by 40 percent but that he did
not know if the strategy had worked. "There hasn't been a whole lot of
follow-up," he said.
Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, said the agency "remains committed to further reducing
bycatch through innovative technologies and management approaches, and
NOAA's investment in bycatch reduction programs have cut commercial
fishing bycatch considerably in the last decade. NOAA Fisheries data
shows that bycatch has dropped 50 percent in the Gulf shrimp fishery
and substantially in virtually all other U.S. fisheries, benefiting
the ecosystem and protecting our valuable marine resources."
Although federal authorities track bycatch by placing observers on
some vessels, their statistics are not comprehensive.