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Fishery Conservation Act Aims To End Overfishing in America
Scientists, activists encouraged by law
advocating ecosystem-based management

By Lea Terhune


January 31, 2007

After recent scientific studies showed world fish stocks could collapse completely by 2048, passage by the U.S. Congress of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act could signal a new direction.

This version of the updated act, signed into law by President Bush January 12th, aims to end overfishing in the United States and combat massive illegal fishing on the high seas. Under the new law, the United States can close its domestic ports to countries whose boats engage in illegal overfishing.

"World fisheries are in as much trouble as they have ever been," Mike Sutton, director of the Center for Future of the Oceans (CFFO) at California's Monterey Bay Aquarium, said. "We're finally beginning to realize we need to take really strong action to safeguard fisheries from overfishing and help them recover."

Scientists and activists alike are encouraged by the law. National Environmental Trust Director Matt Rand said he sees "huge potential to end overfishing" and rebuild depleted fish populations, "but the devil is in the details and implementation of regulations are very important." He emphasized agencies must be "fully funded so we can actually see the law implemented to its fullest extent."

The law sets deadlines for the regional fishery management councils that govern American commercial fishing operations to establish annual quotas. They must end overfishing of currently threatened fish stocks in American waters by 2010 and of all stocks by 2011. It strengthens enforcement of fishing laws and those protecting marine mammals. Individuals who break the law can lose their quota allotments.

The director of the Marine Policy Center at the Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) in Massachusetts, Andy Solow, agrees that if the law is "implemented in a serious way" it will contribute to rebuilding fish stocks and to sustainable management of harvesting. "I think the reauthorization makes a stronger statement about the need for outside review of science in the management decisions, and that's going to be a good thing," he said.

A big problem has been that regional councils setting harvest quotas include many members who are fishermen. "The fisheries in this country are managed by the user groups, not directly by the government," Sutton said. "That means quotas are going to be set not just on the advice of scientists but by the political judgment of those who sit on the councils." If catches are set too high, species decline. But hopes are that scientific oversight directed by the law will change this.


"The combination of a good management plan that's aimed at making the fishery sustainable but allowing the fishery to be exploited in an efficient way, I think, is what the country should want," Solow said. "The idea of using the knowledge that fishermen have in developing management plans is good, but like the scientific knowledge it ought to be peer reviewed."

Ecosystem-based management, advocated by the reauthorization, was viewed favorably by conservationists. "We've always managed fisheries in this country species-by-species," instead of according to ecosystems, Sutton said. Better to "think about how the whole system works" and balance the needs of people and fish.

"In multispecies fisheries there may be connections between the species, and it would be foolish in a case like that to think you could manage them one at a time because anything you do to one species will have an effect on another species," Solow said.

The fishery is a natural resource, so "harvest it in a sustainable way that's low cost, because that way you maximize the economic benefits to society," he said. Solow said the change in marketing approach outlined by the new law could help end the fishing race. He citied the belief of fisheries economists in market-based approaches to fish management, such as setting a quota and auctioning pieces of that quota to fishermen. Solow favors "allowing the efficient fishermen to be the ones who buy up that quota and do the fishing," adding, "the door has been opened in a way that it hasn't in the past."

Protecting global fish stocks is tricky. "People can be very impatient," Solow said, "but it's a very complicated political problem and people's livelihoods are at stake." He said the law represents progress toward fisheries' recovery and sustainability.

"We know from various studies that the oceans have the ability to recover if we just leave them alone and let them do it. That's the tough part," Sutton said. "'Every time a fishery shows any hint of recovery, the fishing industry puts enormous pressure on governments to go right back at it." Restraint and responsible management are the watchwords, he said.

Consumers also have a role to play because their buying habits affect the market, according to conservation activists. If consumers make environmentally sound choices when they shop or order in restaurants, they can help conserve world fish stocks.



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