WASHINGTON – Cod, haddock and flounder have long been staples of the New England diet. Yet over the past decade, landings of these fish — which along with hake, halibut, pollock, and others are collectively referred to as “groundfish” — have declined as fishermen were forced to take deeper cuts to catch limits in an attempt to rebuild depleted fish stocks.

Recent indications in this fishery have been more promising as some fish populations have rebounded to near unprecedented levels, yet catch limits for other species remain low enough to threaten the viability of this historic industry.

The limitations imposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, do not always paint an accurate picture of the abundance of the fish stocks in a given year, forcing the industry to work around federal restrictions which often seem arbitrary.

Delving into complex data to develop accurate, justifiable stock assessments is a time-consuming process, so when scientists announce their recommendations, their data are often years out of date and still contain a significant amount of ambiguity.

When the Department of Commerce’s Inspector General’s office probed the operations of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center at my request in 2009, they found that even some of NMFS’s own researchers admitted the best available science simply isn’t good enough to develop a sufficiently accurate estimate.

Last spring, this uncertainty resulted in the loss of 130 Maine jobs when fishery managers slashed the total allowable catch of herring by 40 percent even though the fishery was not considered overfished.

The result was the shuttering of the Prospect Harbor sardine cannery — the last of its kind in America. And earlier this year, the NMFS acknowledged the glaring gaps in its stock assessment for pollock and increased the catch level by 600 percent — a boon for fishermen, but also a clear signal that its data are simply inadequate.

NMFS’s own data show that the target catch level for all groundfish species in 2008 was approximately 162,000 metric tons, yet the total catch was less than a quarter of that amount. The law requires managers to achieve the “optimum yield” from our fisheries. Clearly, we are falling short of that goal.

The same story continues to repeat itself in the groundfishery even as some species — like redfish and Gulf of Maine haddock — are at decades-high levels of abundance. Yet because many kinds of groundfish often end up in the same net, once the total allowable catch is achieved for the weakest fish population, the entire fishery must be shut down to protect it.

When catch limits were announced for 2010, I worked with NMFS in my capacity as ranking member on the Senate’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard to ensure low catch limits on a few species would not bring the season to a premature end.

I met with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in Washington last May and implored him to use his emergency authority to increase catch limits without allowing overfishing to occur.

At that meeting, Secretary Locke agreed to raise the catch limit on pollock and, after additional pressure, he finally acknowledged earlier this month that he has the legal ability to take further steps.

His actions have the potential to save the thousands of jobs the groundfishery supports in Maine and throughout New England, and with more than five months remaining in the 2010 fishing year, I urge Secretary Locke to waste no time in increasing catch limits to more accurately reflect the current state of this fishery.

Secretary Locke’s announcement also included an endorsement of the International Fisheries Agreement Clarification Act, a bill I introduced that would level the playing field between U.S. and Canadian fishermen by allowing NMFS to account for the different management measures Canadians use in their fishery.

It is senseless for Americans to leave fish in the sea just to have them swim across the border and end up in Canadian nets. When Congress reconvenes next month, I will work diligently with my colleagues in the House and the Senate to pass this bill into law before the end of the year.

This is a tumultuous time for America’s first fishery, and in today’s economic climate where job creation and retention is paramount, the livelihoods of too many Mainers hang in the balance.

Implementation of the steps I have proposed here — improvements in fisheries science, increased catch limits without allowing overfishing to occur, and parity with our Canadian counterparts — will help ensure this once vibrant fishery regains its former economic and environmental health.