Panels on fishing allow overharvesting, critics say

September 19, 1994|By New York Times News Service

A major fight is shaping up in Congress over the role of eight little-known committees created by federal law two decades ago to protect U.S. waters from overfishing by foreign vessels.

Critics of the committees, who include members of Congress, environmentalists and even some committee members, say that in some cases the panels have proved to be their own worst enemies by allowing overfishing of those same waters by U.S. vessels.

Such overharvesting has helped to bring about the fishing industry's drastic decline.

The regional councils set fishing limits and allocate catches between competing fishermen. While Congress specifically proposed that council members come from the fishing industry and be exempted from conflict-of-interest statutes, critics say that panel members are prone to favor industry interests over those of the public or the long-term health of the fishing industry.

"Tough decisions have not been made," Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., who is vice chairman of the Commerce Committee's National Ocean Policy Study, said recently.

"People who have been responsible for trying to curb the process have not done so and, most importantly, fishermen themselves, who for years under the management councils were given the responsibility to conserve, have not been conserving."

Most council members reject any suggestion of conflicts, and some councils have been credited with moving swiftly to avert economic and ecological problems.

The role of the councils is emerging as a major issue as Congress prepares to take up reauthorization of the law that created them, the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

The landmark 1976 law extended the nation's coastal waters from 3 miles to 200 miles to drive out foreign vessels that had been overharvesting the fish in those waters. Should Congress fail to amend the Magnuson Act, members would probably pass a resolution continuing the current law. They could come back in the future and change the law then.

But the critics say that the council members have allowed domestic fishermen to pick up where the foreigners left off.

In establishing the council system, the Magnuson Act created one of the more curious entities in the federal government.

It first charged council members, who are paid $300 a day for some 30 to 35 days of service annually, with a difficult balancing act: preserving the nation's marine resources while minimizing damage to the fishing industry.

A council plan is reviewed by both the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Those agencies forward their recommendations to the Commerce Department, which can reject the plan, though it has rarely taken such action.

Frank DeGeorge, the inspector general of the Commerce Department, which oversees the councils, testified before Congress recently that the conflict-of-interest exemption covering the fishing councils appears to be the only one affecting some 1,000 councils that advise the government on issues like trade, energy and health policy.

In an analysis delivered to Congress on Friday, the World Wildlife Fund, an environmental group in Washington, D.C., found that 84 percent of council members in 1992 were drawn from the commercial or recreational fishing industries.

"It is like timber companies deciding on the quantity of timber sales or electric companies sitting on a public utilities commission," said Michael Sutton, a vice president of the group, which is lobbying Congress to get more non-industry representatives on the panels.

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