October 8, 2012

Critics: Scale back fisheries rules

They find absurdity in the 10-year timeline and the one-size-fits-all approach to rebuilding groundfish.

By JAY LINDSAY The Associated Press

BOSTON - The law that governs the nation's fisheries was passed 36 years ago to oust foreign boats working in U.S. waters. Today, New England fishermen wonder if it will soon oust them.

click image to enlarge

The Maine fishing boat, Cap'n Mark, unloads its catch of fish at the fish auction facility in Gloucester, Mass., in 2008.

2008 file photo/John Ewing

Because of certain controversial mandates in the law, the fishermen face colossal cuts in how much they're allowed to catch in 2013. Lawmakers are pushing a $100 million aid package just to sustain the fleet.

The law has become "an impediment to keeping the fishing industry alive," said Scituate fisherman Frank Mirachi

But Peter Baker of the Pew Environment Group said the law isn't to blame for fish populations that have dwindled over decades, that's exactly what it can fix.

"The law is pointed in the right direction," he said.

Now called the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the fisheries law was passed in 1976. It created a 200-mile U.S.-controlled zone off the coasts, from which foreign boats were expelled by the late 1980s.

But environmentalists soon worried the efficient American fleet was now the one overfishing. So in 1996, various conservation measures were enacted.

One of those mandates was a 10-year timeline for rebuilding a depleted fish species. That window is nearing its end for fish such as cod in the Gulf of Maine, but the stock is nowhere near replenished and fishermen face massive catch reductions in an attempt to meet the deadline.

Environmentalists say that fish recovery needs such a deadline or it will never happen. But there's little science behind a 10-year period, and even longtime fishery watchers struggle to recall where the number came from.

An early reference is found in a 1992 federal consent decree issued after a lawsuit to force regulators to prevent overfishing. The number arose from consultation with population scientists, recalled Peter Shelley, a Conservation Law Foundation attorney involved in the lawsuit.

"It was not thin air, slightly more than back of the envelope, but not the product of extensive scientific debate," Shelley said.

Critics include U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, who's railed against "that 10-year stupidity" and says the unscientific, one-size-fits-all requirement would hurt fishermen the same way that forcing a homeowner to pay off a 30-year mortgage in a decade would.

The steep cuts coming in 2013 are also tied to another of the law's mandates, a 2007 change that requires an immediate end to overfishing. That means that the more gradual cuts that regulators used to put in place aren't possible anymore.

Drew Minkiewicz, a former U.S. Senate staffer who worked on the 2007 fishery law reauthorization, recalled the push to "immediately" end overfishing came amid concerns regulators were forever delaying needed cuts.

The change requires, and enforces, precisely determined catch limits during a fish's rebuilding period. But scientific projections of the health of some stocks have since proven way off, and painful adjustments were needed to keep the fish in its rebuilding track.

For instance, scientists believed in 2008 that Gulf of Maine cod stocks were robust. Today, cod's recovery is seen as so weak that the huge cut became unavoidable.

"There was a lot more confidence in the science than there should have been, that is fair to say," Minkiewicz said.

Among the estimated cuts next year: 72 percent to Gulf of Maine cod, 70 percent to Georges Bank cod and 51 percent to Georges Bank yellowtail flounder.

But several species in line for the biggest cuts have actually grown since 2007, fisheries scientist Steve Cadrin noted. The Gulf of Maine cod, for instance, has ticked up from about 10,800 metric tons' worth of spawning-age fish in 2007 to 11,900 metric tons in 2010.

He also finds absurdity in regulations designed to save the industry that could actually enact industry-killing cuts.

(Continued on page 2)

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