U.S. Attempting to Reshape Fishing Rules

Boats cram the docks of New Bedford, Mass., harbor, where fishermen make their living scouring the ocean for scallops, haddock and cod.
Boats cram the docks of New Bedford, Mass., harbor, where fishermen make their living scouring the ocean for scallops, haddock and cod. (By Juliet Eilperin -- The Washington Post)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 8, 2006

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. -- Working fishing boats cram this city's docks, brightly painted vessels with names like "Let It Ride" and "Fearless." But tied up alongside them are plenty of rusting vessels that have not shipped out in years, stark reminders of the sea's fickle bounty.

Once the nation's foremost whaling town, New Bedford has reemerged as a fishing capital. Riding a boom in the fishery for scallops and other shellfish, its catch sold for $207 million last year at dockside, more than that of any other U.S. port. But cod and other once-plentiful species remain scarce despite a decade of efforts to restore depleted stocks.

Congress, meanwhile, is preparing to rewrite the nation's fishing rules in a bid to improve the much-criticized system for managing fisheries, and that worries Debra Shrader. The director of a fishermen's advocacy group here called Shore Support, she fears the fishing community will pay the price for rebuilding fish populations.

"If they studied us nearly as much as they studied the other biomasses, they would realize what they're doing to us," said Shrader, whose group co-wrote a report last year showing that full-time employment for area fishermen dropped 20 percent between 1993 and 2002. "None of these species are on the verge of extinction, but our communities are."

As lawmakers consider the most comprehensive revision of fisheries regulation in a decade, the argument is focused on how drastically to limit fishing when fish populations decline or crash. The combatants do not divide along the usual partisan lines; the fight over rewriting the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act pits environmentalists against fishermen, the Senate against the House and coastal regions against one another.

The outcome may determine how many fish will be left in the ocean decades from now and who will be around to catch them.

"The perception among fishermen is that things are getting worse and worse, which is true," said Joshua S. Reichert, who heads the Pew Charitable Trust's environmental program. "We've been steadily driving toward the edge of a cliff and taking meticulous notes along the way."

The nation is also in the midst of a debate over how to regulate fishing in international waters. The administration pledged last week to push for a moratorium on destructive bottom-trawling on the high seas, but environmentalists such as Reichert question whether U.S. negotiators are really pressing the point at the United Nations.

No one questions that increasingly sophisticated fishing technology has devastated many prized fish stocks. In the decade since the current management program began, 74 fish stocks have been formally declared "overfished," and plans have been drawn up to rebuild 67 of them. But so far, fewer than 5 percent have been replenished, a recent study found.

Biologist Andrew A. Rosenberg, lead author of the study in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment and a professor at University of New Hampshire, said it will take stricter limits, such as those in the pending Senate bill, to bring these species back.

"You need a clean catch limit, and you have to have consequences," said Rosenberg, who was deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service from 1998 to 2000.

There are sharp variations across the country, however. In New England, more than a third of native fish stocks are overfished by federal standards, and cod stocks are at 10 percent of the recommended level. By contrast, just 3 percent of Alaska's stocks are overfished.

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