House Approves Overhaul of Rules for Fisheries

Congress yesterday passed the broadest overhaul of the rules that govern the U.S. fishing industry in a decade, with provisions instructing fishery managers to adhere strictly to scientific advice so as not to deplete the ocean.

The final language of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which passed the Senate on Thursday and the House early yesterday, was a compromise between environmentalists and fishing interests. The measure mandates an end to overfishing of depleted species within 2 1/2 years and allows the selling and trading of shares in a fishery to promote conservation.

“This clearly acknowledges the problems we face and reflects a realization by lawmakers that we can’t continue to postpone dealing with overfishing and the destruction of marine habitat,” said Josh Reichert, head of the Pew Charitable Trust’s environmental program.

Commercial fishing interests, Bush administration officials and GOP lawmakers also praised the legislation.

“Fishermen and conservationists are all getting something they can be proud of in this bill, and they can rest assured that this bill maintains a critical balance in fisheries management,” said House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.). “While it is important to protect our nation’s fish stocks, it’s equally important to protect our nation’s vital and deep-rooted fishing communities. This bill does just that.”

Jim Gilmore, spokesman for the At-Sea Processors Association, said the bill “has important conservation measures for promoting sustainable fisheries nationwide,” adding: “For us it’s a great thing to have catch limits in every fishery.” The organization represents Alaska pollock and Pacific whiting fishermen who land 20 percent of the U.S. catch.

Lawmakers cut some deals to pass the measure, including language that will extend a 10-year rebuilding plan for summer flounder in the Northeast to 13 years, which will allow recreational and commercial fishermen to catch more flounder. Federal officials had set the 2007 summer flounder catch at 5 million pounds; under the new law, next year’s catch will be 17.1 million pounds.

“This is a big help,” said Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), whose state boasts a major summer flounder fishery. Saxton said lawmakers were able to make last-minute concessions because they were eager to reach agreement before Congress adjourned for the year. “We knew some economic hardships were unnecessarily going to take place if we didn’t accomplish this.”

But those compromises angered Michael Hirschfeld, chief scientist for the advocacy group Oceana.

“We’re disappointed because we really do see this as an opportunity missed,” Hirschfeld said, adding that he hopes federal officials will manage fish “in a way to make sure that there’s enough resources for the whole ecosystem, not just us.”

While much of the bill focuses on tightening the 30-year-old fisheries law, it also endorses for the first time creation of “limited access privilege programs” allowing groups or individuals to trade shares of a fishery’s overall catch.

“It’s a groundbreaking piece of legislation that gives an unambiguous green light for a cap-and-trade program for fish,” said David Festa, who directs the oceans program for the advocacy group Environmental Defense.

Bush, who vowed earlier this year to end overfishing before leaving office, is prepared to sign the bill into law.

“We believe that this legislation is an important step for the United States to rebuild our nation’s fisheries and will allow our fishers to utilize all of the tools that are available so their fishing businesses can operate safely and economically,” said Bill Hogarth, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service.