Revamp of federal fishing laws

The US Senate unanimously approved a bill to revamp management of the nation’s marine fisheries and strengthen protections against overfishing of dwindling stocks.

The bill requires the use of annual catch limits and enhances the authority of eight regional fishery management councils, as Congress struggles to protect vulnerable fish stocks while keeping struggling fishing industries afloat.

The sweeping bill reauthorizes the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the 30-year-old law that oversees fishery management in waters between three miles and 200 miles offshore.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who led efforts to update the bill that bears his name, called it critical legislation that should “ensure the productivity and sustainability of our nation’s fishery resources.”

President Bush had called on Congress to reauthorize the fishing law, saying the week before its passage that “overfishing is harmful … to our country, and it’s harmful to the world.”

Speaking at the declaration of a new national monument in the Hawaiian Islands, Bush said Congress should reauthorize the fisheries law as soon as possible.

“They need to get that done,” Bush said.

Stevens, in a speech on the Senate floor, said lawmakers had heeded the president’s call to end overfishing.

“The bill the Senate passed today will achieve this goal by requiring every fishery management plan contain an annual catch limit be set at or below optimum yield,” Stevens said.

“This will provide accountability in our fisheries and ensure that harvests do not exceed” sustainable levels.

The bill also would bolster the role of scientific advisory committees and incorporate several recommendations from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, which has called for an overhaul of U.S. ocean policies and laws.

Lee Crockett, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, called the bill a step forward.

“Most importantly, this bill does not roll back existing conservation measures already in place, unlike its counterpart in the House which almost ensures that fish populations will continue to decline,” Crockett said.

The House Resources Committee approved a bill last month with language that critics say could allow continued overfishing of depleted stocks.

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the Resources panel, disputed that and said he was encouraged by quick passage of the Senate bill.

“This legislation is extremely important to our nation’s fisheries and fishermen, and I urge the House to quickly follow suit” on its version, Pombo said.

“These two pieces of legislation are on the same track, policy-wise.”

Passage of the Senate bill was delayed for nearly two weeks by West Coast senators seeking financial assistance for salmon fishermen hurt by a sharply curtailed fishing season.

Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Barbara Boxer of California dropped their opposition after Stevens and other Senate leaders agreed to a provision making West Coast salmon fishermen eligible for disaster assistance.

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., called passage of the bill a breakthrough, but he said finding money for fishing communities remains the key challenge.

“We have fisherman facing mortgage payments and ice-plant operators needing to make payments on their leases,” Smith said.

“I am going to continue to press Congress to provide aid until the fishermen receive what they need.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said the Senate bill builds on the legacy created by her predecessor, former Sen. Warren Magnuson, D-Wash., who co-sponsored the original fisheries law in 1976.

“Although we’ve had strong fisheries management in place for 30 years, overfishing is still occurring in some areas of the country,” Cantwell said.

“This bill ensures sustainable fish stocks while maintaining the flexibility necessary for fisheries managers to consider the needs of coastal communities.”