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Monday, December 11, 2006

BEFORE LEAVING town, Congress passed an important piece of legislation for the health of America's oceans. Two commissions in recent years have concluded that only bold policies can prevent the collapse of coastal ecosystems. The bill, which reauthorized and improved upon the nation's fisheries management laws, wasn't bold enough and contained a few unfortunate compromises, but it represents progress.

Fisheries management is hugely important. When it's done poorly, the result is the disappearance of fish stocks, serious economic hardship for coastal communities and untold environmental damage. When it is done effectively -- as in Alaska -- the result is a win-win for environmental and economic interests. The keys are the responsible use of science in setting catch levels, a firm ban on overfishing and insistence that depleted stocks be permitted to rebuild.

Congress's first accomplishment was in generally rejecting efforts to weaken the rules -- which, given where the debate started, was no small thing. The bill clarified that regional fisheries councils, some of which have permitted overfishing of depleted stocks, must stop doing that. It obliged the councils to follow the advice of their scientific committees in setting annual catch limits. While a provision providing firm accountability for exceeding such limits got watered down, the insistence on science reflects a substantial and important change.

Assuming the councils respect Congress's will, the bill will move American fishing toward sustainable levels. It also has strong provisions regarding destructive methods of fishing on the high seas that will strengthen the hand of the administration, which has been trying in international negotiations to stop such practices in international waters.

The bill is a good start. It shows that the dire warnings of oceanic death have opened some eyes among policymakers.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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