Bush Officials Seek to Alter Major Fishing Rule

The Bush administration wants to change a rule that requires the rebuilding of depleted fish stocks within a decade. The 10-year rule helped curb an over-fishing crisis when it took effect in 1996. Supporters say the rule is out of date and ineffective; environmental groups strongly oppose the move.

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The Bush administration wants to rewrite one of the country's major environmental rules. Under the rule, groups that manage fisheries must rebuild depleted stocks of fish in a decade, no more. The 10-year rule helped curb an overfishing crisis when it took effect in 1996. Spokesmen for the National Marine Fisheries Service say the rule is now out of date and ineffective. Environmental groups say that's not true, to put it mildly. NPR's John Nielsen has more.

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

The crisis that begat the 10-year recovery rule peaked in the early 1990s, when many of the country's best-known fisheries were collapsing. Federal calls for sharp new limits on fishing had triggered ferocious opposition. Tony DiLernia, director of maritime technology at Kingsborough Community College in New York, sat on one of the local councils in charge of setting catch limits.

Mr. TONY DiLERNIA (Director of Maritime Technology, Kingsborough Community College): I remember state police escorts out of meeting rooms in the early '90s after having made decisions that fishermen disagreed with, chairs being thrown across rooms, threats to us--`If you do this, we're going to do this to you.' I remember that.

NIELSEN: Meetings like those are partly why the regional councils often refused to limit fishing, even as many stocks were pushed to the brink of commercial extinction. But that all changed in 1996 when Congress passed a law called the Sustainable Fisheries Act. Under this law, when federal scientists ruled that a fishery was depleted, the regional councils were forced to do something about it.

Mr. STEVE MURAWSKI (Chief Scientist, National Marine Fisheries Service): And it also said that we had to do it over a finite time frame. We couldn't just take forever to eliminate overfishing and rebuild the stocks.

NIELSEN: Steve Murawski, chief scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, says the councils were given 10 years to rebuild most of the depleted stocks. Short extensions to these deadlines were expressly prohibited. Today it's clear that the 10-year rule has done a lot of good, says Murawski. Fish like haddock, summer flounder and scup have bounced back dramatically. Other fish have not done as well.

Mr. MURAWSKI: But if you look at the track record, particularly since 1996, we feel that we're on a positive trajectory with these stocks, and we've learned a great deal about the role of science and the role of hard targets in terms of the rates of fishing and our goals for stock rebuilding.

NIELSEN: Ironically, Murawski says one of the things he's learned is that the inflexibility that used to be the strength of this 10-year recovery rule has now become a weakness. That's because while this law does not allow for short extensions, it does allow regional councils to go back to the drawing board and come up with whole new recovery plans, and that, in Murawski's opinion, has delayed conservation.

Mr. MURAWSKI: We've given an incentive to councils that if they wait long enough, we would extend that time frame to, say, up to 20 years.

NIELSEN: Murawski's one of the authors of a plan to replace the 10-year rule. It would force regional councils to step in quickly to limit overfishing, but recovery deadlines would be set on a case-by-case basis, and short extensions would be allowed.

It's fair to say that environmentalists hate this new proposal. Carl Safina, director of the non-profit Blue Ocean Institute, says that's because it was this drop-dead deadline that made the old plan work. Trying to stop overfishing without hard deadlines is like trying to control reckless driving without setting speed limits, he says.

Mr. CARL SAFINA (Director, Blue Ocean Institute): You do need a number. Otherwise, every time the cop pulls you over, he'll say, `You were going too fast,' and you'll say, `No, I wasn't going too fast.' And if there's no number to decide whether you were or you weren't, then you can just argue about it and get nothing done.

NIELSEN: Safina fears a return to the bad old days of nasty public hearings and unheeded federal warnings. But Tony DiLernia of Kingsborough Community College thinks those concerns are overblown, mostly because American fishermen are more willing to accept federal regulations than they used to be.

Mr. DiLERNIA: The old guys that fished under no regulations, they're becoming dinosaurs and unfortunately we're dying. And the guys who are coming into the industry came in understanding.

NIELSEN: The proposal to erase the 10-year rule is open to public comment until the end of October. Federal officials say they won't make a final decision until sometime next year. John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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