Happy fish

Who knows why a lame-duck Congress acted to protect fish. Was it "Happy Feet," the cartoon movie hit that suggests overfishing is killing off penguins? Or a report that ocean fisheries will collapse by 2048? Whichever, the net effect is welcome.

The outgoing, Republican-led Congress decided in its final hours on Saturday to make critical changes to the nation's 30-year-old fisheries law, known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Perhaps the departing lawmakers were nudged into action by strong words from President Bush, who has called for better protections against further depletion of dwindling fish stocks. Congress was given ample warning of overfishing by a 2003 Pew Ocean Commission report and a 2004 report of the Bush-appointed US Commission on Ocean Policy. And last month a study in the journal Science forecast that the human impact on oceans will result in an end to commercial fishing of wild seafood by midcentury. (Jellyfish may be one exception.)

The US, like a few other nations that restrict fishing, has been in a long, awkward dance between reliance on scientific data about worsening fish stocks and political desires to retain the jobs of local fishermen.

(About a quarter of fish populations in US waters remain depleted, partly because of weak efforts to control overfishing. The US has the most territorial ocean waters in the world.)

The new law tips the balance strongly toward science in how regional councils that now manage fisheries make their decisions on quotas. It also requires these councils, which are federally backed, to implement a plan to rebuild stocks within two years of a stock being declared overfished.

And in an innovative step, the law sets up a cap-and-trade system, known as "limited access privilege programs," that allows groups or individuals to exchange shares of a fishery's overall catch within a region. That may help fishermen cope with ever-tightening catch limits.

The law's passage gives hope of a bipartisan spirit in the next Congress toward other global environmental issues, such as rapid climate change.

In fact, the next Congress may want to fix one flaw in the just-passed law: Fishery managers are not held accountable if they allow catch limits to be exceeded.

The next Congress may also want to make sure the Bush administration follows through with one key provision in the law: Using American diplomatic and economic muscle to end illegal "pirate" fishing by other nations' fishing fleets. The law also calls for more study and protection of deep-sea corals.

About 1 in 6 humans on the planet relies on fish for the main source of protein. Rebuilding fishing stocks and then sustaining them is in everyone's interests. Those rapacious fishermen in the world who seek short-term profits in overfishing are the ones who need to be stopped.

Many other ocean issues remain before US lawmakers. One is aquaculture, or fish farming, which remains a viable way to save wild species. But Congress must ensure such farming is regulated well to be environmentally sound. Human and fish must find a way to coexist on this ever-shrinking planet.

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