- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2003

The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee has slipped a provision into a key spending bill that would loosen fishing restrictions in Alaskan waters, angering environmentalists and senators who want the controversial items stripped out.

Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, inserted what is called a “rider” onto the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee appropriations bill last month that would change federal regulations governing the fishing of crab, rockfish and pollack — Alaska’s most lucrative North Pacific hauls.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine oppose the rider, staffers said, because the issue is so complicated that it deserves debate in either a committee room or on the Senate floor.

Riders, commonly tacked onto spending bills, can become law with little or no debate.

“You can address these concerns in regular order,” said a McCain staffer.

The senator will offer an amendment to kill Mr. Stevens’ rider when the omnibus spending bill it is likely to be attached to comes to the Senate floor, he added.

The Stevens rider would extend what is a frantic and dangerous crab-fishing season and mandate that fishermen take most of their catch to government-designated packing houses. It would also open up fishing off the closed military installation at Adak Island, steering exclusive rights to develop the new fishing town there to a company that lists Mr. Stevens’ son on its board of directors.

Another area of Alaskan waters would also be opened to bottom pollack fishing, which environmentalists say will endanger a fragile coral reef and the habitat of a colony of sea lions.

“We are finding some very rich diversity in the coral and sponge garden,” said Ted Morton, policy director for Oceana, a District-based environmental group. “They are irreplaceable. Once they are damaged and destroyed by fishing gear, they’re not going to be replaced for hundreds of years.”

Mr. Morton said one study estimated that 1 million pounds of coral and sponge could be brought up inadvertently by fisherman every year if fishing were allowed there.

Representatives from Mr. Stevens’ office, however, said the environmental impact of the fishing is being exaggerated.

“We’re giving [fishermen] a very small slice of pollack fishing,” said a Stevens staffer on the condition of anonymity. “The idea that we are messing with sea lions is pretty ludicrous and a scare tactic to focus other environmental [groups] on this.”

Mr. Stevens’ chief of staff, David Russell, said the senator is cognizant that “we’ve been burned by bad science in the past” and “it’s time to implement [fishing regulations] the right way.”

“Since he came to the Senate in 1976, his only concern has been protecting the reproductive capability of [Alaskas] marine species,” he said.

As for dealing with this issue through the use of a rider, Mr. Russell said concerns about the fishery in Alaska have been thoroughly debated in various committees.

“The North Pacific Council [which helps regulate Alaska’s fisheries] spent years developing this plan,” Mr. Russell said. “Congress held a hearing. It’s time to move forward.”

But Mr. McCain doesn’t think this is the way to do it, said one of his staffers.

“We’re talking about millions of dollars in contracts,” the staffer said. “This shouldn’t just be slipped in.”

The staffer said Mr. McCain is gaining support for his amendment to strip the omnibus spending bill of the Stevens rider, but success for such efforts often proves difficult.

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