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COLUMN LEFT / PETER ZHEUTLIN

Blame Aplenty for Shrinking Resources : Fishing joins logging on the endangered-jobs list, and again, environmental concerns are made the bogyman.

March 20, 1994|PETER ZHEUTLIN | Peter Zheutlin is an attorney and communications consultant based in Needham, Mass

It was the largest floating protest in America since the Boston Tea Party. Angry fishermen blockaded Boston Harbor last month to protest against the recent imposition of federal regulations that severely restrict fish catches in the North Atlantic.

The regulations, and the protest, are the inevitable result of substituting crisis management for long-term planning when it comes to natural resources.

The regulations will, in the short-term, cause real pain and economic dislocation for many fishermen. But their predicament has its roots in decades of overfishing. It is an elementary law of nature that applies to most renewable resources: When consumption exceeds regeneration, the resource will be depleted and those who depended on it will, sooner or later, be out of jobs.

It has been known for years that fish harvests, not just in the North Atlantic but in many parts of the world, have proceeded at levels that are unsustainable. In New England, overfishing of commercially valuable species, such as cod, haddock and flounder, have allowed less valuable species to dominate the habitat, and the displacement may be permanent. In 1990, a task force recommended strict quotas in hopes of restoring commercial fish populations in five to 10 years. So, the question in New England is whether to allow the last remnants of commercially valuable stocks to be depleted--which would give the fishing industry a brief reprieve but a certain death--or to restrict catches, allow stocks to replenish and salvage the industry's long-term future.

It is of little comfort to those facing immediate economic disaster that the obvious answer is the latter.

You can find the same lack of foresight everywhere you look. In the Pacific Northwest, loggers and mill owners blamed the spotted owl and environmentalists for their economic woes. But the loggers of Oregon didn't run into a spotted owl or environmentalists, though both made convenient scapegoats. They ran into their own lack of foresight. For too long, they cut trees faster than the forests could regenerate. Given the chance, they would have cut themselves right out of a future. In fact, some did.

In Montana, too, big timber companies cut trees three times faster than new trees could grow back. Times were good, while they lasted. But when Champion International cut and ran from nearly 900,000 acres of forest land late last year, it left entire communities dazed and hurting.

There were plenty of jobs in Libby, Mont., when the tree-cutting binge was in full swing in the 1980s. Plenty of short-term jobs, that is. And, one supposes, New England's fishermen could eke out a few more lean years before they fished themselves, and the fish, out of existence.

Everywhere the issue is characterized as jobs versus the environment. It's a false dichotomy, but one that serves the interests of industry quite well. When corporate shortsightedness and greed inevitably result in lost jobs, the corporate finger points at environmentalists. The company has its profit, the stockholders have their dividends and the displaced workers have their bogyman.

Most of the fishermen who are hurting now are small, independent operators. It is easy to understand, given how tough it is to earn a living at sea, how and why overfishing occurred. There is plenty of blame to go around, and some lies with governments that waited until a crisis to act.

For good reason, environmental groups cannot appear to be anti-jobs, and, indeed, they are not. Yet the specter of even the slightest economic dislocation can often derail sensible, long-term environmental planning. The issue isn't jobs versus the environment. It's short-term jobs versus long-term jobs. Those who depend on natural resources for their jobs--fishermen, loggers, paper-mill workers--have the most to lose from shortsighted depletion of those resources.

We can no longer afford the short-term vision that has consistently guided policy concerning our natural resources. Posterity, it is said, has no lobby with politicians, so the political challenge is daunting. We must adjust our sights. The next quarter, the next election, the next harvest--these are short-term perspectives. The next century and beyond must be our frame of reference.

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