Law Aims to Save Atlantic Fish Stocks


In the final hours of Congress early this month, legislators agreed to vote in a new federal fishery management for the years ahead.

The Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act oversees the way scientists, fishery managers and fishermen harvest one of the nation's most valued resources.

The new legislation, a cornerstone for the way stocks are managed, was passed by the Senate and voted by the House a few days later.

"I am especially pleased that the final bill includes a number of changes involving fishing quotas that, in the long run, will protect the small-boat fleets that are so important to fishing communities all throughout New England," Cong. William Delahunt said.

Not everyone is happy. Cong. Barney Frank had wished that the legislation gave more flexibility to regulators in lightening the load that fishermen must bear in order to bring about full recovery of depleted stocks. Cod and yellowtail flounder remain in serious trouble in these waters.

Flexibility is essential, Congressman Frank said: "This is particularly important, given the fact that the law will now require for the first time a specific deadline for ending overfishing along with an annual catch limit."

The Magnuson-Stevens Act, which is 30 years old, was written to provide uniform management regime to prevent overfishing and rebuild stocks in federal waters.

Thirty years ago, the big issue for lawmakers was establishing a 200-mile limit to keep foreign fishing fleets from overfishing areas where stocks were in severe decline. Today, the Magnuson-Stevens Act is written to protect the resource from overfishing by American fishermen.

Closer to the Vineyard, all waters of Georges Bank, federal waters south of Nantucket and south of the Vineyard are under the purview of the New England Fishery Management Council. Some stocks are overseen by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

While fish stocks have recovered with the help of the federal law in other parts of the country, New England stocks have been in serious trouble for years.

"The bill does no harm. It is a modest step from our current law," said Peter Baker, of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, an organization made up of small fishermen who mostly are from Chatham.

There are provisions within the management which step up the importance of science in determining what catch limits should be observed, Mr. Baker said.

Under the new law, councils must pay greater attention to the recommendations of their staff scientists when setting catch limits. It also requires more rigid deadlines for restoring a resource.

This particularly pleases Mr. Baker: "In the past we would intentionally overfish for five years and then pull back our fishing effort to meet a goal. That didn't make any sense to me in the past."

Mr. Baker said there is greater emphasis in the new act for looking at the role bait fish play in restoration of stocks. He said there is a provision that will study the role herring play in the ecosystem.

Conservation groups have monitored the movement of the reauthorization legislation for more than a year.

The overall legislation is milder than the Senate version but more conservative in protecting stocks than in what was written in the House.

One provision called on councils to be more accountable: If there was an overharvest of one species it would have to be made up the following year. That provision was dropped, though councils are required to be more accountable on restricting fishing effort.

The American Sportfishing Association praised the legislation. Mike Nussman, president of the association, said: "We appreciate the senators' and congressmen's willingness to listen to and address the issues vital to the sportfishing community. This new law provides a sound basis for improving fisheries conservation and management for the enjoyment of future generations of anglers."

But David Pierce, deputy director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said that the legislation is so new, the jury is still out on what the act means for fisheries managers and fishermen.

A key element in the legislation calls for oversight in the way fishermen may buy and sell their permits, their quotas or days at sea.

The legislators are concerned that in some cases corporations and banks can become owners of fishing boats. In New England waters, the sea clam fishery is no longer accessible to family fishermen; all the permitted access is owned exclusively by a small number of corporations.

In this vulnerable time, fishermen and fisheries managers don't want to see large corporations take over the New England fishing fleet. Mr. Baker said he is pleased that a process of careful oversight has been designed within the act to prevent such an outcome.