Fish Protection Plans Fail Test

Fishery management plans drafted by eight U.S. regional councils won't adequately protect the nation's fish stocks, according to the Marine Fish Conservation Network (MFCN), a coalition of some 80 organizations representing conservationists, fishermen, and marine scientists. In a letter to Secretary of Commerce William Daley today, the Network urged him to reject most of the plans. If not, some of the Network's member groups will take their case to court, MFCN co-chair Ken Hinman warned.

Fish populations in U.S. waters have been dwindling for decades, posing a severe threat to the $20 billion fishing industry. In 1996, lawmakers passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which called for an immediate stop to overfishing, a reduction of bycatch--fish that are caught inadvertently--and protection of essential fish habitats. The eight regional fishery management councils charged with implementing the law had until October 1998 to redraft existing plans for the protection of many different fish species.

MFCN claims that the plans would allow overfishing to go on and do too little to reduce bycatch. "There is too much business as usual," says Hinman, who says the councils have mainly attempted to ease economic pressure on local businesses. "But in the long run, they're doing them a great disservice. We've seen people go out of business because of overfishing."

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) spokesperson Scott Smullen says the complaints are premature, because NMFS hasn't finished reviewing the plans yet. "No decisions have been made," he says. If the plans fail to comply with the Sustainable Fisheries Act, they will be returned to the councils, says Smullen, who expects all reviews to be completed by July and is confident that they will eventually result in a sustainable fish industry.