Ten years after Congress required that 67 species of depleted fish stocks be rebuilt to healthy levels, only three of them have been. The law had no effective means of enforcement, so many of the vanishing species continue to be overfished.
Regional management councils have been loath to impose curbs that would hurt local fishermen, particularly in New England, even at the cost of ultimately putting them all out of business, according to a recent University of New Hampshire study.
Five years later than scheduled, Congress may be finally on the verge of fixing the problem. The Senate has approved legislation, endorsed by President Bush, that would put teeth in the 1996 law by imposing annual catch limits on the threatened species and real penalties for violating them.
But in the House, supporters of the Senate measure have to contend with Rep. Richard W. Pombo, a California Republican who chairs the House Resources Committee. A property rights advocate and the unabashed nemesis of conservationists, Mr. Pombo is advancing legislation that would weaken regulation of fisheries in federal waters.
Mr. Pombo pulled rank and seized the issue from Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican and one of the House's leading environmental champions. As chairman of the Natural Resources subcommittee on fisheries conservation, Mr. Gilchrest would normally be charged with crafting legislation to pair with the Senate bill. Instead, he and his fellow GOP moderates have little choice but to join Democrats in a rear-guard action.
Mr. Bush, who has lately announced himself a champion of the oceans and of a broad approach to fishery management instead of dealing with each species individually, should enlist in the Marylander's cause. When Mr. Pombo's bill comes to the House floor - perhaps later this month - the president could be very helpful in winning votes for Mr. Gilchrest's amendments to align the legislation with the Senate version.
At stake are not only the cod of New England, the red snapper and grouper of the Gulf of Mexico, the salmon of the Pacific Coast and summer flounder in the Mid-Atlantic, but also many other species - and the environments in which they live. Perhaps even more threatened by declining fish stocks is the industry that depends on them.
Shortsightedness is a luxury neither the fish nor the fishermen can afford any longer.