No Sea Change in Marine Conservation Bill

Fishing for data.
Cod tagging in the North Atlantic can tell researchers about fish health, but data alone won't stop overfishing, concerned scientists say.

Shelly Tallack/Gulf of Maine Research Institute

A new bill to reauthorize a 30-year-old fisheries management act would aid conservation, researchers say, but only incrementally. Introduced by Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) on Wednesday, the bill gives scientists more opportunity to influence marine policy--including recommending fishing limits--but stops short of mandating that their advice be followed.

The original Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 was intended to protect domestic jobs against foreign overfishing in U.S. waters. The Act also established eight regional fisheries councils, made up of fishermen, marine scientists, and federal state managers. But over the past 30 years, domestic overfishing, as well as habitat degradation and ocean pollution, have significantly eroded U.S. fish stocks. In 2004, two ocean commission reports urged drastic measures to address the problems (ScienceNOW, 15 February 2004); they also called for a revamping the Magnuson-Stevens Act. This past September, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration unveiled its own blueprint for new legislation (ScienceNOW, 22 September 2005).

Stevens's bill would give more clout and independence to the scientific advisory panels that advise the regional councils, providing data on sustainable yields, health of fish stocks, and risks of accidentally catching protected species. To improve the quality of this advice, the bill establishes a formal peer review process and offers stipends to encourage a broader range of scientists to participate. The new bill also specifically directs the regional councils to consider the scientific advice when determining sustainable fish quotas. Under the current Act, that consideration is voluntary.

Critics point out that the councils only have to listen; they are still under no obligation to follow scientists' advice. "This is a weak point," says marine biologist Ellen Pikitch, director of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science in New York City.

Andrew Rosenberg, a marine scientist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham and a member of the 2003 Pew Commission on Ocean Policy, agrees, saying that managers are still determining limits independent of other aspects of an ecosystem, such as water quality. Rosenberg notes that the bill at least obligates the fisheries councils to explain their reasoning when they choose not to follow scientists' advice. "It's better," he says, "but it's not there yet."

The Senate could vote on the bill as soon as February. A similar bill sits in committee in the House.

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