House Resources Committee Approves Major Fisheries Bill

Thursday, July 11, 2002
Melissa B. Robinson, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The commerce secretary would be required to identify the 20 U.S. fisheries with the biggest capacity problems under legislation the House Resources Committee approved Wednesday.

The committee voted 23-17 to send the bill reauthorizing the nation's major fishing law, known as the Magnuson Act, to the full House for consideration. The committee's Senate counterpart has not yet acted.

The bill would authorize $1.2 billion over five years for fishing programs, including a new government-industry initiative to develop gear that reduces the catching of fish that are unintentionally caught and destroyed. The secretary's report on capacity would be due within a year of enactment. The report would also include recommendations for reducing the excess, including by retiring latent fishing permits.

Conservationists say some of its provisions would weaken current law. For instance, the term "overfished" would be redefined as fish stocks below a "natural range of fluctuation" — a change that will make it harder to get species protected, critics said.

Supporters said the change is reasonable because it will stop rebuilding plans from being triggered for stocks that are low due to environmental reasons, not overfishing.

Also, critics point to the bill's narrowing of habitat protections for fisheries that are overfished or approaching that condition.

Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., who wrote the legislation, focused on troubled fisheries to lift the type of broad protection mandates that have led to dozens of lawsuits being filed against the National Marine Fisheries Service since 1997, aides said.

When Congress adopted Magnuson in 1976, it was concerned primarily with reducing foreign fishing in U.S. waters. The landmark law established an exclusive U.S. economic zone up to 200 miles offshore and created a regional council system to manage fish stocks under the auspices of the fisheries service, a Commerce Department agency.

But once the impact of foreign fleets off U.S. shores was reduced, domestic overfishing began to occur in the 1980s, prompting worries about conservation. That led Congress to add explicit standards in 1996 to protect fish and habitat, reduce the catching of unwanted fish, and consider impacts on fishing communities.

But the service has not been able to enforce those standards, leading to lawsuits, many brought by environmentalists.

Among its other provisions, the bill would:

· Require that fishing boats participating in federally funded buyouts be permanently removed from all fishing, even overseas.

· Set guidelines for establishing quota systems in fisheries. A moratorium on quotas is to expire Sept. 30.

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