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Reeling In the Fishermen

August 03, 2004

Nearly 30 years ago, Congress created a framework for deciding who could fish in federal waters and how much they could catch. That 1976 law created a string of regional fisheries councils that, in essence, gave commercial anglers the ability to regulate themselves.

You can see the result in markets and restaurants. Harvests of bocaccio (commonly sold as Pacific red snapper), once ubiquitous off the California coast, have plummeted from 5,700 metric tons a year in 1982 to 21 metric tons in 2002. The cod harvest along the East Coast has sunk by four-fifths in same period. Eight of 20 bellwether species in Pacific waters are classified as overfished.

Two prestigious commissions that recently studied the problem have reached remarkably similar conclusions: Independent marine biologists -- not fishermen whose profits depend on catching ever more fish -- should set limits that will sustain and perpetuate fish stocks. Such a method is the way we decide how many trees loggers can cut in federal forests and how many cattle can graze on federal range land. Fish are no less valuable as a public resource.

State law prevails within three miles of the coast. In federal waters, between three and 200 miles offshore, Congress in essence set sharks to guard the mackerel. Typical is the Pacific Regional Council; of the nine appointed members in 2003, eight were fishermen or represented fishing associations or seafood processors.

Experts on both the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, appointed by President Bush, and the Pew Foundation's Ocean Commission see this setup as maximizing short-term commercial profits at the expense of the public's long-term interest. Both panels agree that restoring marine fish stocks requires separating decisions about how many fish to take from those who get to take them.

A bill in Congress would do that. The proposed Fisheries Management Reform Act would require that the secretary of Commerce set ecologically safe fish-catch levels based on scientific evidence. The regional councils could apportion that catch among local fishermen. Introduced in June by Reps. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.) and Sam Farr (D-Carmel), HR 4706 would also require the councils to include members with no ties to commercial or recreational fishing.

These changes make sense. Without them, this irreplaceable marine resource is on a path to ruin.

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