Group calls for less wasteful fishing

Feb. 28, 2002 at 9:01 PM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- Oceana, a new international group dedicated to protecting the world's oceans from destructive fishing and pollution, launched a campaign Thursday in Washington to reduce "bycatch" -- the 25 percent of all fish catch thrown overboard.

"Bycatch -- fish and sea birds caught by fishermen and thrown overboard back into the oceans -- amounts to 44 billion pounds of fish each year," Steve Roady, Oceana president, said at a Washington news conference. "Oceans are not indestructible, and important fish species are impacted -- fish species have reduced by two-thirds since 1950."

Along with the launching of the letterwriting campaign, Oceana and American Oceans Campaign announced they are joining forces to protect the world's oceans. American Oceans Campaign, a 15-year-old national nonprofit environmental organization led by actor Ted Danson, will be incorporated into Oceana, a new international nonprofit ocean advocacy organization.

Oceana released a report, "Oceans at Risk: Wasted Catch and the Destruction of Ocean Life," that it said "exposes the waste and destruction of marine life in U.S. fisheries, and the failure of the government to take action."

According to the report, fishing nets strangle, drown and crush tens of thousands of sea turtles, birds, whales, sharks, fish, dolphins and other endangered marine life -- heavy nets drag across the ocean bottom for fish, bulldozing virtually everything in their path.

"Bycatch in U.S. waters is a key part of the problem but the U.S. government has failed to enforce laws to protect ocean wildlife unintentionally caught during fishing," said Roady. "We are submitting a petition that holds the Bush administration accountable for its delay and inaction on illegal and wasteful fishing practices."

The petition calls for sufficient observers (biologists hired by the federal government) to determine the amount of bycatch, a cap on bycatch and fish management plans to minimize bycatch.

"We want the National Marine Fisheries Service to count it, cap it and control it," Roady said. "On the East Coast, less than 2 percent of fishing trips carry observers required to record data on bycatch."

The NMFS has done almost nothing to force those responsible, the regional fisheries management councils, to bring their plans into compliance and when the agency does act it usually does so under court order, the report said, and the agency is slow to enforce the necessary safeguards needed for species protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

"It's true we are targeting the Bush administration with a letterwriting campaign but this is a global problem and we're taking several approaches in various countries around the world such as adjusting seasons of fishing and requiring or seeking voluntary gear changes and developing incentives for the fishing fleet to develop new environmentally friendly technology," Roady told United Press International.

"We haven't put a dollar figure on how much it would cost to increase the number of observers on fleets -- the Bush administration has requested $16.9 million for fiscal year 2003 for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for these programs, but we recommend that amount be raised to $25 million."

Funding wouldn't be a problem if Congress reallocated funds already designated for fisheries and stop using it as a slush fund, according to Zeke Grader, a fishing fleet owner in California and the head of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

"The Kennedy Act, which passed in 1954 -- that was Jack Kennedy -- was a bill by Congress to get fishing technology improved and made competitive with the rest of the world because the cod fishery which was still abundant in the 40s had dropped significantly," Grader told UPI.

"But fishermen are getting good yields and that's part of the reason for the large bycatch, that money should be used for research and development for better fishing gear so that fish too small or not wanted by the fisherman can be easily taken off the hook and thrown back alive -- but we agree some bycatch is terrible in some places but things have improved in the United States."

Grader added that the federal acts that regulate fishing are well enforced in some areas and not enforced in others but that the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 had made sustainable fisheries a goal -- fisheries with an even keel -- and not the boom and bust of some fisheries where overfishing occurred resulting in fishermen going out of business because there was not enough fish.

"We don't need observers on every boat, we need well-trained observers on some boats who know what they're looking for and whose data cannot be manipulated by federal agencies," Grader said. "Some observers have complained that that their data was changed by the government."

"It's in the interest of the fishermen to have a long-term view for their own future, for the fishery and the environment and to not upset their consumers because some practice could result in a boycott," Grader added.

(Reported by Alex Cukan in Albany, N.Y.)

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