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.
These disparities have intensified criticism of the eight fishery management councils that enforce the current law. The councils set regional catch limits, subject to federal approval, based on scientific recommendations from federal, state and academic scientists.
Congress passed Magnuson-Stevens 30 years ago in an effort to kick foreign fishing fleets out of U.S. waters, not to conserve species. The act was later amended to include conservation, but the Bush administration and many lawmakers agree it has failed to do the job, and they favor tighter rules.
"The president wants a Magnuson-Stevens bill that ends overfishing, that ensures our fisheries get rebuilt," said James L. Connaughton, Bush's top environmental adviser, although he declined to take sides between the Senate and the House version, which would establish less stringent controls.
Part of the problem is a lack of good data. "Basically, the technology for estimating the abundance of a fish population is still a fishnet," said Brian J. Rothschild, a professor of marine science and technology at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, next door to New Bedford.
At the moment, several regional councils allow catches above the scientifically recommended levels on the theory that deeper cuts will hurt fishing interests too much. Scientists told the Gulf of Mexico council this year that the red snapper catch would have to be held to 5 million pounds to allow the population to recover immediately, and a limit of 7 million pounds would restore it by 2009. Instead, the council endorsed a catch limit of 9.1 million pounds.
"The law does not give the government the authority to step in and end overfishing," said the Fisheries Service's chief scientific adviser, Steven Murawski. "Even though we've made good progress, we haven't reached the goal post."
The Senate-passed bill, written by one of the act's original authors, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), would require the councils to adhere to scientifically determined catch limits and to reduce future catches anytime industry exceeds the quotas.
Stevens, who said in an interview that Alaska's fisheries have thrived in part because the industry complies with scientists' recommendations, added that if other regions "accept scientific guidance, we'll end overfishing."
The House bill, by Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), which is slated for a floor vote in November, also calls for limits based on the "allowed biological catch" calculated by scientists. But it would allow overfishing to continue for two years under rebuilding plans, and it might extend the current 10-year deadline for replenishing depleted stocks in some instances to ensure a fishing community's infrastructure remains viable.
Sarah Chasis, who directs the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council's ocean initiative, called these provisions "conservation rollbacks" that will hurt fishermen in the long run. "If you rebuild these stocks in a timely way, the net economic value is really significant," she said.
But Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who represents New Bedford and worked with Pombo on the bill, considers even a 10-year rebuilding timetable arbitrary. In some instances, he said, more modest catch reductions over a longer time period could preserve local jobs and allow stocks to rebound eventually.
"We're not talking about permanent damage to the air or water," Frank said. "We're talking about an extension of overfishing. That's possible."
New Bedford's fishermen acknowledge that they have depleted some of their most valuable stocks, including the once-teeming species that gave nearby Cape Cod its name, and that fishery closures have helped some species rebound.
In the mid-1990s, federal officials closed one-third of Georges Bank, east of Cape Cod, to give scallops and groundfish such as haddock a chance to recover. Scallops did so dramatically -- a scallop boat can now scoop up $120,000 worth in two trips -- and haddock is also back. But the cod, which is more mobile and has a different life span, has yet to recover.
David Harrington switched from being a scalloper to being a ship engine mechanic more than a decade ago when regulators began to impose scientific standards on the fishery; now he thinks he may have acted too hastily. "I thought they were going to ruin it, and you know, they did a great job," he said.
But many local fishermen remain dissatisfied with federal managers, saying they open and close fishing areas without sufficient notice. "You're nervous when you're going out that you're in the wrong place," said Tom Manley, who has been fishing for scallops since he graduated from high school 28 years ago. "They need to listen to the fishermen more."
Some Massachusetts fishermen say attitudes toward conservation are shifting. John W. Pappalardo, who was elected chairman of the New England regional council last week, fished for cod until "there really weren't any left." He noted that with fishermen's support, the council approved rules for herring that bar "pair trawling," in which two ships tow a net between them and scoop up massive catches.
"It's not like a light switch, where we used to be in darkness and now we're illuminated," said Pappalardo, who is based in Chatham, Mass. "It took us many years to screw things up, and it's going to take a few years to unravel things."