More than a quarter of the fish caught by commercial fishermen nationwide is wasted — caught accidentally and tossed overboard to...

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More than a quarter of the fish caught by commercial fishermen nationwide is wasted — caught accidentally and tossed overboard to die, according to a new review of federal records by ocean scientists.

From the squid and mackerel of the Atlantic seaboard to rockfish off the West Coast, commercial fishermen still discard more than 1.2 billion pounds of fish every year, mostly because they catch the wrong kind or surpass their quotas, according to the study released by the environmental group Oceana.

“Basically, for every four pounds of fish we land, we’re discarding one,” said the study’s co-author, Andrew Rosenberg, a University of New Hampshire professor and member of the Bush administration’s Commission on Ocean Policy.

“We should do better.”

The study, conducted by Rosenberg along with Ransom Myers, a biologist with Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, and biologist Jennie Harrington essentially compiled rates of accidental fish catches and other fishing data kept by government agencies around the country.

The fishing industry and federal managers have struggled for years with how to reduce so-called “bycatch,” or the catch of unwanted fish, particularly those caught in nets that drag for miles along the seafloor, because most of those fish simply die.

The most wasteful fishery in the country is the shrimp fishery in the Gulf of Mexico, the study said. The half-million metric tons of fish snagged in those shrimp nets each year could “fill all the bathtubs in a large city,” Myers said.

“The scale of the problem is enormous.”

In the Pacific, fishermen generally are doing better, discarding about 15 percent of their catch. However, the study pointed to failings with groundfish off Washington, Oregon and California, and the accidental killing of halibut.

In the 1990s, accidental snagging of halibut in trawl nets was so bad that more halibut were caught by mistake than by halibut fishermen, said Don McIsaac, director of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal group that oversees commercial fishing on the West Coast.

“I would say the council would agree the bycatch is still higher than it ought to be,” he said. The council plans to spend the next two years trying to restructure fishing regulations to further reduce waste.

Some fisheries, such as in Alaska, have implemented various measures to reduce waste, such as closing certain areas to fishing, requiring all boats to carry independent observers and forcing some changes in net design to allow unwanted fish to escape.

In Alaska, the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska have seen reductions of more than 200 million pounds in unwanted catches in 10 years. Waste of groundfish, particularly cod, has been cut in half.

Even so, Alaska is still responsible for 20 percent of the nation’s fishing waste because the volume of fish caught there is huge — half the nation’s catch of wild fish.

“You can’t discount the amount of progress that’s been made in the last several years,” said David Benton, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, an organization representing Alaska’s factory trawling fleet. “There’s certainly more we can do.”

But Benton also pointed out that in Alaska, the rates of waste are factored into the quotas. So if a fisherman is allowed to catch 100 tons in an industry with a 30 percent waste rate, the quota is actually set at 70 tons.

“There’s just no way you can say bycatch or discards are contributing to overfishing or hurting the ecosystem here,” Benton said.

But, that’s not the case in other parts of the country, said Rosenberg, the study’s co-author.

“The people who know best how to reduce bycatch are fishermen, but there needs to be real incentives to make them move quickly,” he said.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com