Keeping fish on future menus

It's no coincidence that Congress and the UN are each struggling to solve an alarming decline in ocean species caused by overfishing. A solution largely rests in governments setting and enforcing catch limits that balance the environmental need and fishermen's livelihood.

Last month, the UN cited a "compelling need" for nations to sustain fish stocks under a 1995 international agreement which covers fishing in international waters, beyond each nation's 200-mile economic zone. One-fourth of fish stocks in international waters are overfished, and another half are being fished close to or at their sustainable level, the UN says. The Grand Banks off Canada, for example, has seen its once superabundant cod all but disappear.

The outlook for US waters is equally troubling. Both the 2004 US Commission on Ocean Policy, appointed by President Bush, and a 2003 Pew Oceans Commission revealed seriously depleted fish stocks and urged quick action.

Now legislation is moving through Congress to update the 1976 federal law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, that manages US waters.

A Senate bill offered by Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska fails to satisfy fully all interests, environmental and commercial, but has won broad support. As it stands, it would put stronger teeth into enforcing catch limits.

In the House, a bill sponsored by Rep. Richard Pombo (R) of California last month received approval (26 to 15) from a House committee.

Magnuson-Stevens provides that US coastal fisheries are overseen by eight regional councils. The councils were set up to give voice to commercial and recreational fishermen, the general public, ocean scientists, and environmental groups.

Fishing interests can't be protected at all costs. Some species may never recover, and the fishing industry will have to adjust - as many industries have done for environmental interests. A multiyear complete ban on the fishing of some of the dozens of depleted species might spur the quickest recovery. A moratorium on striped bass fishing in the Chesapeake Bay has succeeded. But such bans are often not politically feasible.

The councils can establish 10-year programs to restore overfished species, and current provisions allow for adjustments in the programs if circumstances warrant. In contrast, the Senate bill appears to offer some bite: If a catch limit is exceeded one year, the next year's catch would have to be reduced by a similar amount.

The House bill lacks that provision and provides new loopholes that can be used to extend the 10-year timeline, putting off needed action. It also would exempt fisheries councils from oversight under a separate federal law, called the National Environmental Policy Act. This law requires all federal agencies to take into account how their actions affect the environment and consider alternatives.

To its credit, the House bill mandates that councils base their decisions on good scientific evidence and provides that council members receive training. The Senate bill should pick up these sensible provisions.

Congress has time to rejigger both bills before trying to reconcile them. By taking the best of each, it can cast its net on the right side of this pressing issue.

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