By Barbara Liston
(Reuters) - U.S. commercial fishermen are throwing away about $1 billion worth of edible fish each year, according to a conservation group which is advocating for incentives to stop the waste.
The quantity of so-called bycatch – that is, fish that wasn't targeted but caught inadvertently – is estimated by the U.S. government at two billion pounds (907,185 tonnes) a year.
The surprise was the quality of the bycatch that often is tossed back into the ocean dead or dying, said marine scientist Amanda Keledjian, author of the report from Oceana, a nonprofit international conservation group.
"We're not just throwing away trash fish. We're throwing away meals," Keledjian said.
Keledjian said fishermen throw away the unintended catch for several reasons, including lack of a permit to fish the species, quotas, size limit laws and the complication of processing an odd fish back at the dock.
The study put a price on the bycatch reported by U.S. fisheries in 2010 and recently compiled by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
T. J. Tate, who until recently headed an organization of 110 red snapper commercial fishing businesses in the Gulf of Mexico, said most commercial fishermen are conservationists at heart and support measures to keep fisheries sustainable.
"What they don't want is to be regulated to death where they can't do what they do," said Tate.
Her group, the Gulf of Mexico Reef Shareholders Alliance, which banded together in 2008 to protect the marine environment, already encourages the landing of red porgy, their typical bycatch, which they promote and sell under their own brand.
The Oceana report said the discarded bycatch included $45 million worth of sea trout from the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, $20 million in sea scallops from the Mid-Atlantic and New England, and $53 million in Pacific halibut from Alaska, which was 25 percent of the landed halibut, according to the report.
Oceana is calling for economic incentives, including the possibility of a bycatch tax, to both bring the bycatch to market to retrieve some value and to encourage the adoption of improved gear to avoid bycatch.
The bycatch of unwanted fish or ocean wildlife was "one of the biggest threats to the health of ocean ecosystems, contributing to overfishing and the decline of fish populations around the world," Oceana said.
(Editing by David Adams and Sandra Maler)