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Toss This Stinker in the Sea

October 05, 2003

Ted Stevens thinks the Alaskan fishermen and processors he represents shouldn't have to comply with federal rules they don't like. So the powerful Republican, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, attached a rider to the Commerce, Justice and State appropriations bill to give Alaskan industry a pass.

Stevens insists that Alaskans have done a better job husbanding their fish-teeming waters than have other states. Regardless of whether he is right about the health of the Alaskan crab, salmon and pollock populations, he's wrong to use the appropriations process to grant favors that rewrite federal resource law behind closed doors.

One provision of his rider would freeze all funds to enforce federal laws imposing new limits on crabbing and fishing in sensitive ocean habitat. Another legal barnacle guarantees certain processing companies 90% of the lucrative Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands crab catch. This unprecedented deal not only would favor some processors and unfairly exclude others, it would hobble fishermen from offering their prized catches to the highest bidders.

This rider is troubling by itself. But it becomes deeply disturbing when combined with the growing market for seafood and the more efficient fishing techniques that threaten ocean species. For example, the red king crab season in Alaska's Bristol Bay this year was the shortest ever. Crabbers captured an entire year's quota in a little more than two days by using 700-pound steel pots baited with chopped herring and set and retrieved by hydraulic launchers and large winches. Yet even as this high-tech harvest intensifies each year, Stevens would order federal regulators to lay off, a move certain to put more pressure on the prized critters' survival.

Stevens' rider also would set destructive precedent. California, Florida or Maine lawmakers could decide they want to suspend federal rules protecting their fish.

Federal fisheries law is and should remain the product of consensus and deliberation, not one senator's backroom maneuvers. That's why Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) promise to "strenuously oppose" Stevens' rider. When the mammoth spending bill that it is hooked to comes before the Senate, other senators too should cast his smelly deal into the deep.

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