- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2006

Environmentalists are cheering legislation passed by Congress last weekend to overhaul the U.S. fishing industry that, among other things, sets a deadline for ending overfishing of depleted stocks and a timeline for rebuilding them.

The renewal of the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs how fishing is regulated in federal waters, won Senate approval Thursday and House approval early Saturday. It is expected to be signed into law by President Bush.

“There are a lot of good things in this bill,” said Phil Kline, senior fisheries policy adviser for Oceana, a nonprofit oceans advocacy group, who noted that the Magnuson-Stevens Act was last reauthorized 10 years ago.

Specifically, he said, the new version mandates an end to overfishing of depleted stocks within 30 months of when the measure becomes law; “lets scientists rule the roost” by barring regional fisheries councils from exceeding harvest levels recommended by scientists; and authorizes fishery councils to “protect coral from the adverse effects of fishing gear, such as bottom-trawlers and urges the council to use that authority.”

Requiring councils to adhere to scientists’ advice on fishing limits “stops overfishing,” Mr. Kline said.

Lee Crockett, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, calls the new legislation a “pretty good bill.” But he says his group is “disappointed” that the measure does not have a provision that called for fishery management councils that exceeded annual catch limits to have their quotas reduced by that amount the following year.

Instead of subtracting such catch overages, Mr. Crockett said, the measure merely states that accountability should be ensured. He said he is doubtful that provision will be effective.

For years, marine conservationists have been seeking protection of deep-sea corals from destruction by large bottom-trawler ships as they scrape the ocean floor. Critics of these fishing practices argue that the coral reefs serve as habitat for species crucial to the seafood industry, such as sea bass, snapper and rock shrimp.

Despite all the good news for marine conservationists, the legislation represents a compromise between them and fishing interests. Along with Mr. Bush and others, commercial fishermen also praised the measure.

In addition to avoiding mandatory reductions in catch limits for fishery councils that exceed established harvest levels, New England lawmakers, led by Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, sought flexibility in a mandatory 10-year rebuilding plan for fish stocks determined to be “overfished.”

“Councils were not given a timeline for rebuilding before, so there was a lot of foot-dragging,” Mr. Kline said.

But language in the bill as passed lengthens the decadelong rebuilding plan for summer flounder in the Northeast to 13 years. Federal authorities had set next year’s summer flounder catch at 5 million pounds; but it will be more than three times that total under Magnuson-Stevens.

What’s more, the measure says catch limits have to be set at a level that allows a fishery to be economically viable.

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