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June 30, 2010

Bycatch: New take on waste bring new threat for fishing industry

Since the 1994 publication of a troubling, landmark study, the United States has led the way in the effort to reduce "bycatch."

Bycatch is the term used to described fish hooked or netted inadvertently, fish of lesser or no value to the commercial fisherman, fish of a species that puts the boat over its limit or of a species protected by "no-catch" rules.

In simple terms, bycatch is a byproduct of the legal catch and is wasted — typically just shovelled overboard. The waste has troubled Gloucester for a long time.

Here in New England waters, bycatch became illegal on May 1, under the catch share regime ordered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If industry analysis proves correct, that change in the rules threatens to put some fishermen out of business.

The rules require the landing of all legal-size fish caught in federal waters, including those landed by accident.

The Catch 22 of the catch share system is that the fish landed by accident count against the fisherman's quota and can shut him down. For example, a fisherman with a quota of 100,000 pounds of cod and 1,000 pounds of pollock must stop fishing after reaching his 1,000-pound limit on pollock — even if he is 90,000 pounds short of his 100,000-pound cod quota.

In the past, the fishermen might have discarded the pollock he was not allowed to keep in order to keep fishing for authorized species.

But now observers working for the government will be on at least 38 percent of all fishing trips. And because the boats tend to congregate at the most productive spots, the mix observed on the government-manned boat will be the mix presumed for other boats in the area as well.

Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition, says the new rules could hamstring the industry.

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