- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2006

A Senate spat over relaxed fishing quotas could snag the renewal of the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

Reauthorization of Senate Bill 2012, which governs offshore ocean fisheries, is expected by late spring, but differences remain over whether it should permit relaxed enforcement of annual catch limits for each fishery or impose strict limits.

“Aside from the issue of catch limits, [the bill] is pretty non-controversial,” said Lee Crockett, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, a coalition of 175 organizations that includes a mix of commercial and recreational fishermen as well as environmentalists.

The version of the bill approved by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Dec. 15 had an amendment to soften annual fishing quotas, as a result of pressure by New England fishermen and the members of Congress who represent them.

It was the collapse of that region’s cod stock in the late 1980s and early 1990s that led to the realization that fish stock is finite, environmentalists say. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, nearly half of the major fish stocks found in the ocean off New England were overfished last year.

As originally drafted, the bill called for fishery management councils, where annual catch limits were exceeded, to have their quotas reduced by that amount the following year.

But since New England fishermen “routinely exceed their quotas,” sometimes by as much as 200 percent yearly, Mr. Crockett said, the industry there is seeking “indirect management tools” other than lowering the quota to reduce the following year’s catch.

Congressional observers say it is ironic that the difference of opinion regarding catch limits has made Massachusetts Democrats such as Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry and Rep. Barney Frank, normally viewed as environmental champions, to favor looser controls on fishing.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican and Commerce Committee chairman, who favors oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, is seen as a lawmaker dedicated to conservation of declining fish stocks and protection of their habitats with the bill.

“Senator Stevens has said the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act will be one of his legacies. He blocked any attempts to get it reauthorized until he became chairman of the Commerce Committee,” said Phil Kline, senior fisheries policy adviser for Oceana, an oceans advocacy nonprofit group.

“We know Senator Stevens wants the bill moved out of the Senate by the end of May,” said Mr. Kline, who previously worked as a West Coast fisherman for three decades.

He noted that Mr. Stevens was responsible for an important modification made to the Magnuson-Stevens Act when it was last reauthorized in 1996. At that time, its “focus was changed from fishing and exploitation to conservation,” Mr. Kline said.

He considers the bill a “good solid starting point” for reducing excessive fishing and protecting fish environments. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a great start in improving our oceans,” he said.

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