Protect our oceans from devastating overfishing

August 31, 2006|By Jennifer Bevan-Dangel

Lately, most of the news from Washington has been dominated by partisan fights and acrimony. However, there is one issue receiving bipartisan support - the fate of America's oceans.

The Senate recently approved the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act by unanimous consent. This development comes not a moment too soon. Destructive practices by the commercial fishing industry are depleting fish populations and devastating key ocean habitat.

Equipped with high-tech fleets, fishing industry conglomerates have become so voracious that some fish populations have disappeared within just a few years. A May 2003 study published in Nature magazine found that populations of large predatory ocean fish such as tuna, swordfish, marlin and sharks have declined by 90 percent since the introduction of commercial fishing a little more than 50 years ago. The same study found that it takes only 10 to 15 years for a modern industrialized fishing enterprise to reduce fish populations by 80 percent.

Modern, industrial fishing is a long way from the small teams of fishermen with small nets that most people associate with commercial fishing. Armed with nets a mile long or more, today's industrial fishing operations sweep away every living thing, including dolphins and other "undesirable" bycatch that is often simply thrown away. Huge "bottom-trawlers" scrape the ocean floor clean, essentially clear-cutting everything from coral to essential marine vegetation. Industrialized fishing also puts small, more-sustainable fishing operations out of business.

The problem is that under current law, limits on overfishing are set by regional fisheries management councils that are made up not of independent experts using sound science, but representatives of the commercial fishing industry bound by conflicts of interest. Since 1985, 80 percent to 90 percent of appointed council members have represented fishing interests.

The solution is simple: Fisheries management councils must be reformed to put science ahead of special interests. And penalties against companies that ignore overfishing rules must be strengthened.

The Senate bill contains a number of improvements to current law. The bill sets clearer guidance on how the councils must set annual catch limits and what happens if those catch limits are exceeded, and makes some changes to the regional management councils so that they will become more balanced between commercial fishermen and conservationists and require technical training for new members.

Although the Senate bill could be stronger, it is an excellent first step toward preserving our dwindling fish stocks.

Unfortunately, the story in the House is not so bright. The House version of the bill, introduced by Rep. Richard W. Pombo, a California Republican, almost does more harm than good. Unless the bill is drastically strengthened to meet the Senate version, the foxes will continue to guard the henhouse and our ocean stocks will continue to decline.

This problem can't be ignored. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, two-thirds of New England's major fish populations, such as cod, flounder and haddock, are severely depleted, meaning that populations are at 5 percent to 20 percent of their historical size. In the Southeast, all species of grouper and snapper are overfished. In the Gulf of Mexico, red snapper are depleted. Off the Pacific Coast, rockfish populations are so depleted that they are essentially closed to fishing.

Only Sen. Ted Stevens' home state of Alaska has fish populations that are mostly healthy and not being overfished. In fact, of eight regional fishery management councils across the country, Alaska's is the only one that uniformly listens to the advice of its scientific advisers on what catch levels to set and enforces those limits. Congress should pass a strong bill to ensure that the successful "Alaska model" is followed in all of America's waters.

Other lawmakers, including Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland and Democratic Rep. Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia, have introduced bills that would take a number of important steps to protect our oceans. Unfortunately, these strong bills have been held up while Mr. Pombo's weak legislation moves forward. Our representatives should amend the Pombo bill in the image of either Mr. Gilchrest's or Mr. Rahall's, and work to ensure that our oceans and fisheries are protected for the future.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel is staff attorney for Environment Maryland. Her e-mail is

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