WASHINGTON – This is a critical moment for New England’s groundfishery. As we assess preliminary data from the 2010 fishing season and look forward to the year ahead, it is hard to believe how far we have come from the crisis situation the industry faced this time last year.

The Days-at-Sea program had plunged our fishing industry into a downward spiral, decimating fish stocks and diminishing prospects at sea from 65 days to as few as 14 in 2010.

Underscoring the industry’s deterioration, the 2009 Status of U.S. Fisheries report listed 12 of the 20 species as overfished in New England, with the fewest cod caught in New England in more than 60 years.

As former Rep. Tom Allen stated in his column, “Sustainable fisheries work for New England” (March 20), the Days-at-Sea system devastated opportunities for our fishermen to work and drained a number of key fish species out of the Gulf of Maine’s world-class habitat.

As coastal Mainers know all too well, the economic consequences of this federal policy have been devastating for our communities.

When the New England Fisheries Management Council charted a new course in 2009 that gave fishermen more tools to better manage their stocks, I looked no further than Maine’s own industry for critical input in the development and evaluation of national fisheries policies going forward. Two years later, I am pleased to report that preliminary data is promising.

Today, compared with last year, revenues have increased and our fishermen report that the catch of healthy stocks, including haddock and redfish, are up by more than 10 percent. Moreover, the rate of discarded fish has fallen from historically high levels of 15 percent to roughly 2.5 percent.

When I attended the Maine fishermen’s forum in Rockland earlier this month, our dedicated fishermen exhibited cautious optimism about the future of the fishery. Their resounding calls to “stay the course” underscored the critical imperative to redouble our efforts and make continued improvements to the management of the new, sector-based system.

Now more than ever, it is essential that the focus of scientists, academics and Eric Schwaab, the administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service who also attended the forum in Rockland, remain intently on improving the current system rather than developing a new one.

Following the forum, I convened a hearing in Washington and asked Schwaab what he learned in Maine and whether he believed we should maintain our current management system. He concurred that the current system is giving fishermen the “flexibility to fish more efficiently” and that there are “significant signs of promise.”

While the fundamental strategy is sound, we must streamline regulations, because the fact is that cumbersome federal policies are costing thousands of jobs right now.

It is incumbent upon federal agencies to exhibit a sense of urgency and address the ensuing regulation crisis in our fisheries without delay, and that begins with the Obama administration’s recognition that there are opportunities for immediate action to improve fisheries management.

For example, by correcting an interpretation of a bilaterally managed fishery in legislation I authored that was signed into law in January, catch levels for Georges Bank yellowtail flounder have been increased by 44 percent for 2011. Continued utilization of the most up-to-date science, as well as stringent oversight of current limits, will pave the way for more cost- effective regulations.

During this time of lackluster economic growth nationwide, rebuilding our stocks and revitalizing New England’s fisheries is an opportunity to generate $133 billion in sales and create 2 million American jobs. But to seize this opportunity, federal policies must work for all fishermen and for every port.

To ensure the continued commitment of the administration to the revitalization and lasting sustainability of New England’s fisheries, I wrote a letter, cosigned by Sen. Susan Collins and Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, to the chief of staff of the White House requesting that he listen to input from Maine fishermen before modifying any fishing policy in New England.

Empowering Maine’s industrious fishermen to manage the groundfishery is working. I will keep fighting to ensure that our fishermen’s voices are heard, and make certain that we continue in the right direction to build our coastal economy.

- Special to the Press Herald