Difficult Chantey to Sing

BIT by bit, the United States government is taking steps to preserve the US fishing industry.

To families whose livelihoods rely directly or indirectly on harvesting the sea, the steps may appear to carry a ``burn the village to save it'' logic. But without tighter restrictions on commercial and even some sport fishing, the stocks that have sustained the industry for generations may be irretrievably lost.

A number of factors have contributed to declining stocks. But the single largest factor has been overfishing. The annual catch of ``groundfish,'' such as cod, haddock, and flounder, has plunged from about 200,000 tons in 1980 to just under 50,000 tons in 1992. The Chinook salmon catch on the West Coast has fallen from about 3 million fish in 1986 to less than a million in 1992.

Much of the overfishing stems from poor enforcement of fisheries management provisions in the Magnuson Act of 1976. The act was a response to complaints that foreign vessels were overharvesting in or near US waters. The act extended the US economic zone from 3 miles offshore to 200 miles offshore - a zone that US fishing interests immediately began to exploit. Oversight went to regional commissions composed largely of industry representatives. Meanwhile, technological improvements allow vessels to track and harvest ever larger amounts of fish, while import competition has driven down prices.

Endangered fisheries are a shared problem. Last year the United Nations reported that nine out of the world's 17 most significant fishing zones have been seriously depleted, while another four have lost any commercial value. Internationally, Canada led a successful effort last month within the 14-member North Atlantic Fisheries Organization to impose a one-year moratorium on cod fishing on the southern Grand Banks. The NAFO manages fishing for 10 species outside the 200-mile limit.

In the US, the Commerce Department has tightened restrictions on fishing in the Northeast. The West Coast may face the prospect of a ban on commercial and sport fishing for salmon. Even with a ban, one Washington State official estimates the number of salmon returning to spawn at 40 to 80 percent below the level needed to ensure the species' survival. Alaska remains the only relatively bright spot. The Magnuson Act is up for renewal this year; Congress must tighten the measure's enforcement provisions. Lawmakers also may want to limit the amount of industry representation on the regional commissions to eliminate conflicts of interest.

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