- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Only 13 percent of federally managed ocean fish stocks are known to be healthy and not overfished, says a report by the Marine Fish Conservation Network (MFCN), which urges Congress to impose strict limits on fishing and penalties for those who exceed them.

The report, released yesterday by a coalition of 175 groups that include fishermen and environmentalists, comes as Congress prepares to consider reauthorization of the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the nation’s primary fisheries law.

During a press briefing at which the report was released, Lee Crockett, MFCN’s executive director, said a new reauthorization measure should include annual “catch limits set by scientists” and “accountability” to deal with regional fisheries management councils that exceed those limits.

One option formerly included in a Senate version of the measure, approved by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in December, would require councils that catch more than their allowable limit one year to have their quotas reduced by that amount the following year. But the punishment language was cut from the Senate measure as a result of pressure from New England lawmakers.

Yesterday, Rep. Frank Pombo, California Republican, and Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, introduced a House version of the reauthorization bill that would provide no penalties for exceeding catch limits.

In an interview, Mr. Crockett called the Pombo-Frank bill “a good step in the right direction” because it would have scientists set annual catch limits.

“But there are other troubling parts,” besides the lack of penalties for management councils that exceed limits, he said. The bill would provide additional exemptions to a provision in the current law that requires a rebuilding of depleted fish stocks within 10 years, he said.

Mr. Crockett said that, in the next few days, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, Maryland Republican, will introduce a bill “that will be stronger than the Senate” version of the reauthorization and “without some of the troubling things the Pombo bill contains.”

The MFCN’s report found that in 2004 only 91 of 686 ocean fish stocks were not being overfished, a figure that had not changed since 2001

This should not be happening, Mr. Crockett and others at the briefing said, because legislation passed by Congress in 1996 required an end to overfishing and the strengthening of depleted stock. MFCN said the National Marine Fisheries Service “hides its lack of progress” on this front “with administrative shell games.”

Peter Baker of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association and Gerald Leape, vice president of marine conservation at the National Environmental Trust, who also participated in the briefing, agreed that protection of ocean fish must be strengthened.

“We are not seeing full implementation of what Congress passed in 1996,” when the Magnuson-Stevens act was last reauthorized, Mr. Leape said.

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