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Goal of sustainable fisheries can still be attained
Editorial - The Providence Journal


December 29, 2006

This month, Congress finally got around to reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which regulates American coastal fisheries. In this, its third, overhaul, as in previous instances, the focus of the act has changed. In the 1970s, when foreign "factory ships" were scooping up thousands of tons of fish almost within sight of the U.S. shore, the act declared an exclusive U.S. "economic extraction zone" within 200 miles of the coast. In the '80s and '90s, when the American fishing fleet expanded to the point that Congress had to authorize a huge boat-buy-back program, the bill aimed to conserve stocks from overfishing by U.S. fishermen. American fishermen had moved into the "ecological niche" created by the departing foreigners.

This latest iteration of the law, in the wake of several alarming studies contending that the commercial fishing industry worldwide is headed for collapse by midcentury, strengthens oversight by introducing a schedule for rebuilding depleted stocks, such as cod. Now scientists, rather than the industry, will set catch limits. The bill also strengthens measures against illegal fishing, rife on the high seas.

Congress spent the last year debating two very different versions of the bill - a bill in the Senate sponsored by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens that incorporated recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission, and one in the House championed by California Congressman Richard Pombo and the Bay State's Barney Frank, whose district includes New Bedford, the largest fishing port in the Northeast.

Alaska is one of the few U.S. fisheries to see a rebound in severely overfished stocks - in its case, halibut - and Sen. Stevens has been a consistent advocate of good fishery management. Fisheries elsewhere, such as Georges Bank, have a far spottier record. Sen. Stevens managed, with his House colleagues, to hammer out a compromise that included many of the two commissions' sensible recommendations.

The act authorizes the closure of U.S. ports to countries that plunder fisheries, expanding on a strategy that reduced destructive drift-net fishing in the 1990s. If other countries refuse to crack down on fishing piracy, they won't be able to bring their products into the United States.

The act's most significant change is the imposition of strict timetables to rebuild depleted stocks - two years, rather than the decade or longer proposed in the House version of the bill. And the regional fisheries-management councils, stacked with fishermen, no longer have the last word on catch limits and area closures, a case of clear conflict of interest. Now catch limits will basically be set by scientists.

Setting up the mechanisms to stop overfishing is tricky, but with a resource of such incalculable importance at stake, the effort is of critical importance. Magnuson-Stevens isn't everything it could have been. For example, a provision to deduct catches in excess of set levels from the following season's catch limits didn't make it into the bill. Instead, regional councils will determine their own ways of penalizing overfishing. Setting a nationwide standard for enforcement is something for the next reauthorization, in 2016.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this reauthorization is the bill's recognition that fisheries are in crisis around the world. The measures to counter fishing piracy are an initiative that should be welcomed by other countries, and organizations such as the European Union. With concerted action at that level, the goal of sustainable fisheries can still be attained.


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