Congress aims to curb overfishing

New England's fish stocks are particularly threatened, and some lawmakers want tough penalties.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska has been driving environmentalists batty with repeated proposals to open the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, but some are sending him flowers for his position on fish.

One environmentalist, while biting his lip, recently described Mr. Stevens as "sticking up for conservation" because of his proposal to boost safeguards for the nation's hard-pressed coastal fisheries.

Indeed, of the 200 species whose overfished status is known by the National Marine Fisheries Service, 56 were listed as overfished last year. In New England, 10 of the 27 major stocks are overfished.

While many agree with Stevens that legislation to reverse the trend of declining fisheries is necessary, some lawmakers are against tougher controls because they say that these cause economic harm to local fishing communities.

That Stevens is leading the charge contrasts with his reputation for supporting anti-environmental policy. Last week in the Senate Commerce Committee, he introduced debate to force the nation's 13 fishery management councils to follow scientists' recommendations on fishing quotas - defined as the total allowable catch - among other key suggestions.

His bill is expected to lead to a vote in both houses of Congress next fall to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act passed in 1976, which set up a framework for managing fisheries within the 200-mile US offshore zone. When amended in 1996, it shifted from managing to promoting the conservation of fish stocks, which the fishing industry attacked for using quotas.

"There's been a significant amount of pressure to go back to the way things were," says Lee Crockett of the Marine Fish Conservation Network in Washington. "This [Stevens] bill as it stands now would preserve the 1996 shift to sustainability. That's first and foremost the most critical feature of the legislation."

The revamped act would:

• Require a more systematic process for using scientific data to set annual catch limits, including data training for regional council members.

• Move the nation toward unified management of marine resources and habitats.

• Strengthen US oversight of fisheries and other marine resources in international waters and align US policy more closely with international treaties designed to protect the ocean.

But the bill does not solve the conflict of interest problem of regional fishery commissions being dominated by fishing interests, some observers say. Few environmental or other non-fishing industry members sit on these commissions, the Pew Oceans Commission reported in 2003. Some proposed measures further clarify when management council members must recuse themselves from votes.

"What's in there now is window dressing," says Mark Powell, national director of fish conservation for the Ocean Conservancy in Washington.

Amendments have also weakened the legislation, environmentalists say. Originally, the Stevens-sponsored bill required any amount of fish caught in excess of a fishing quota to be deducted from the following year's catch quota.

But that didn't sit well with some New England politicians, who are generally champions of environmental causes. Under pressure from the fishing industry in their states, they have acted against tighter controls on fishing.

Sens. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine and John Sununu (R) of New Hampshire were joined by Sens. John Kerry (D) and Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts in offering language that softened the quota requirement, Mr. Powell says.

"We have this ironic situation in which people we look toward as environmental stalwarts are doing some of the damage - and people like Ted Stevens, who few regard an environmental hero, is sticking up for conservation," he says.

It's not a surprise that politicians rushed in, says Patricia Fiorelli, a spokesperson for the New England Fishery Management Council that manages fish stocks and determines catch limits. That's because the region's "fishing industry overall has never been in favor of hard total allowable quotas," she says. "It has to work from grass-roots up. You can't shove it down people's throats."

In a statement, Ms. Snowe said amendments that relaxed quotas and penalties for overfishing were necessary to protect local fishing communities. "We have seen that when the law is too rigid and inflexible, our councils become saturated with lawsuits," she said. "When regulators dismiss the negative economic impacts that can result from management plans, we threaten not only thousands of livelihoods, but also a valuable, traditional way of life."

Despite tough regulations in six of the last 10 years and a slight rise in fish stocks, the volume of adult cod in the undersea Scotian Shelf of the East Coast has shrunk to only about one-third of the catch brought home by 43 Beverly sailing schooners in 1885, according to a study from this past spring.

A co-author of that study, Andrew Rosenberg, is a professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire who served on the US Commission on Ocean Policy. Dr. Rosenberg says even in its watered down form, "the Senate bill makes real progress. "We hope what will come out of the House will, too," he adds. "It would be terrible if we ended up backtracking."

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