1. Opinion

Conservationists, fishermen join to save fish stocks

Remarkable things can happen when key stakeholders and leaders in Washington find common ground for a common good. An excellent case in point is the congressional effort to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, a landmark conservation measure signed into law by President George W. Bush five years ago this January.

In the mid 2000s, we had arrived at a point where our marine fisheries management system just wasn't working in many parts of the country. The clock was ticking to reform our nation's primary law for governing U.S. ocean fish. Disputes among main constituencies were many, but one thing was clear to virtually all — business as usual was no longer an option.

With numerous vital commercial and recreational fish stocks severely depleted, action was needed to help them recover and prevent others from facing the same fate. Everyone knew the way forward wouldn't be easy, but something had to be done.

A coalition came together at the last minute to pass the legislation. With vital support from the White House, the group spanned traditional partisan lines and included leaders from conservation as well as the commercial and recreational fishing communities.

Initially, the discussion stalled on technical matters, as many debates in Congress do. In the end, however, the effort led to a well-considered compromise that balanced the many competing needs and pressures on our oceans. The linchpin was a new federal mandate promoting more sustainable practices on the water and embracing the usage of strong, science-based catch limits to restore and maintain fish populations at healthy levels.

Every American who loves the ocean and enjoys seafood should applaud this accomplishment. For such policies to be more effective, however, it's critical that Congress continue to support these efforts with adequate funding for fisheries research.

Today, we have one of the most advanced marine resource management programs in the world. For the first time in U.S. history, by the end of January we are set to have science-based catch limits — as well as measures to ensure that these limits are not exceeded — for all of our federally managed stocks. These efforts have put us on track to end overfishing— the problem of taking species from our oceans faster than they can reproduce — in U.S. waters once and for all.

Anglers, commercial fishermen, and all of those who depend on a healthy ocean are beginning to reap the benefits of these and other reforms in the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Twenty-three previously depleted species' populations have been rebuilt, including Atlantic sea scallops, one of the most valuable fisheries in the country, and mid Atlantic summer flounder. Other commercially and recreationally important species, such as red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, are heading toward recovery.

There will always be competing needs and viewpoints on how to best manage our nation's fisheries. But the bottom line is that the system is now working. One place where Congress can further support this effort is by providing additional resources for federal managers to have the best science possible to make their decisions.

Collaborative research programs are bearing fruit across the nation. As an example, the University of South Florida is working on a cooperative project with partners in the commercial fishing industry to look at new technologies that can be used for stock assessments. The results so far are impressive, thanks in part to the extensive knowledge that many fishing captains have brought to the initiative.

The coalition that came together to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act was a classic example of how Americans with varying perspectives can put aside their differences and work toward a common goal. Similar support for legislative proposals to promote additional cooperative research and management projects would be an excellent way for members in this Congress to build upon the work of those who came before them.

Lee Crockett directs the Pew Environment Group's Federal Fisheries Policy Project. Bill Hogarth is the former dean of the USF College of Marine Science and is currently director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, a consortium of 20 ocean institutions in the state.

© 2012 Scripps Howard News Service