The Perfect Decision?

Fillet of cod or haddock comes with a steep price, and not just in dollars. A bigger cost is in dwindling fish stocks and a depressed fishing industry.

In New England, those costs deepened with a recent decision by a federal judge to impose new restrictions on the region's fishermen. Her ruling is designed to make amends for lax enforcement of a 1996 federal law that was supposed to prevent overfishing.

But even the lead environmental group that brought the suit says the judge may have gone too far. The most controversial part of her decision sharply reduces the number of days fishing boats can go to sea, probably forcing some boats out of business. It also imposes new rules regarding the size of fish that can be kept and the mesh size of nets. Some sections of ocean are placed completely off limits.

Striking the right balance between ever-more-efficient fishermen and the fish is a delicate task. Consider the virtually fished-out banks off Newfoundland or the North Sea. Extreme measures are called for to replenish the stocks of sea life in such areas. New England's fishermen have been under restrictions for a decade. During that time the populations of cod and haddock, the prime local species, have made a substantial comeback – but far from enough, say environmentalists, to sustain the stocks.

A recent University of California report shows the effectiveness of ocean reserves off that state. After just a few years, fish in no-fishing areas made quick comebacks. California is considering expanding the reserves.

Such steps, however, affect people who earn their living from the sea. Economic factors must be put in the balance. That's under way in New England, though for the sake of future fishermen – to say nothing of those seafood dinners – extra weight must be given to preserving healthy fish populations.

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