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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 14, 2006

Fishing industry must not destroy resources

By Moira Chapin

Lately, most of the news from Washington, D.C., has been dominated by partisan fights and acrimony. However, this spring there is one issue receiving bipartisan support the fate of America's oceans.

This development comes not a moment too soon. Destructive fishing practices by the commercial fishing industry are depleting fish populations and devastating key ocean habitat.

Equipped with high-tech fleets, fishing industry conglomerates have become so efficient that some fish populations have disappeared within just a few years. In Hawai'i, bigeye tuna is one of the critical fish stocks now threatened by overfishing. Furthermore, recent data show that only four of 35 fish stocks that are managed by the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, which has authority over all Hawaiian waters, are at healthy levels and fish populations in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are now subject to the devastating impacts of overfishing.

Modern industrial fishing is a far cry from the image of teams of fishermen armed with small nets that most people associate with commercial fishing.

Armed with nets over a mile long or more, today's industrial fishing operations sweep away every living thing, including sea turtles, dolphins and other "undesirable" by-catch that is often simply thrown away. Huge "bottom-trawlers" scrape the ocean floor clean, essentially clear-cutting everything from coral to essential marine vegetation.

Industrialized fishing also puts small, more sustainable or recreational fishing operations out of business. Saltwater recreational fishing is a way of life and essential to the economy of the Aloha State: it generates $40 million in economic activity and 2,095 jobs every year in Hawai'i.

The problem is that under current law, limits on overfishing are set by regional fisheries management councils that are made up of representatives of the commercial fishing industry instead of independent scientists. Since 1985, 80 percent to 90 percent of appointed council members have represented fishing interests.

The solution is simple: Fisheries management councils must be reformed to put science first. And penalties against companies that ignore overfishing rules must be strengthened.

The good news is that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act, the primary law that protects U.S. ocean fish, is due to be updated, and senators known to spar on virtually every issue are coming together to tackle this vital problem.

The bad news is that the leading bill, introduced by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, only treads water on overfishing.

Fortunately, Sen. Daniel Inouye and Rep. Neil Abercrombie both have opportunities to make a big splash in reforming the way that fisheries are managed: As the minority co-chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, Inouye has advocated for enforceable annual catch limits, an item that New England senators are objecting to. And Abercrombie sits on the Resources Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is expected to hold a hearing in late April on proposals to renew and amend the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Only Stevens' home state of Alaska has fish populations that are mostly healthy and not being overfished. In fact, of eight regional fishery management councils across the country, the only one that uniformly listens to the advice of its scientific advisers on what catch levels to set and enforces those limits is Alaska's.

We urge Inouye and Abercrombie to play a leadership role by making sure that Congress passes a strong bill to ensure that the proven, successful "Alaska model" is followed in all of America's waters.

Moira Chapin is the Hawai'i field organizer for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG). She wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.