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September, 2007



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Unhealthy Seas Detailed In New Book

A new book, "The Unnatural History of the Sea," by Callum Roberts, keeps the discussion about the fate of our oceans ongoing and alive. Mr. Roberts rightfully asserts that fully protecting our oceans requires a more comprehensive approach to management that addresses the needs of entire ocean ecosystems. This idea was fully explicated by the recent reports of two national ocean commissions, one privately and the other publicly funded.
As an organization, we do not endorse all of Mr. Roberts' solutions, but we do support the basic principles of protecting marine habitat, ending overfishing, rebuilding depleted fish populations, minimizing wasteful fishing practices, and ensuring a healthy web of life in our oceans. We urge you to editorialize in support of better ocean management to create a healthier future for our seas. Specifically, we ask you to encourage the National Marine Fisheries Service to create strong rules that stop the practice of overfishing, especially with respect to the fish that primarily feed entire ocean ecosystems.

The history of U.S. fishery management has indeed contained many grim chapters. Many fish populations around the U.S. were subjected to overfishing in the past, and that legacy remains with us today in the form of degraded marine ecosystems, limited seasons for recreational fishermen, and small quotas for the few commercial fishermen that remain.

As a nation, we can take some immediate steps to protect our oceans. The National Marine Fisheries Service is currently writing regulations that will implement the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act, bipartisan legislation which was signed into law in January. This revision of our basic marine fisheries law covers all U.S. federal ocean waters generally from three to 200 miles off our coasts. The amendment contains many improvements to our old ways of managing fish populations, one of the most important of which requires fishery managers to set annual catch limits for all fisheries based on sound science. This basic measure, if implemented properly by the fisheries service, and more importantly, if carried out on the water by the regional fishery management councils, will significantly help end overfishing in this country. The National Marine Fisheries Service is set to publish a draft rule in September or October.

We've had such a bright promise held out to the American public once before. In 1996, Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act, legislation designed to end overfishing, protect fish habitat, and minimize wasteful fishing. Much good has come from that Act, but gaps in the regulations and poor implementation by the regional fishery management councils resulted in very little progress.

The fisheries service must write clear, strong regulations that implement the will of the Congress, the President, and the public - to end overfishing. Without such unambiguous rules, many of Congress' good intentions may go unrealized.

The fisheries service should also embark on a course to ensure that all ocean wildlife have enough food to eat to survive and flourish. Some of the nation's largest fisheries target "forage fish," which are species such as herring, mackerel, pollock, squid, and whiting that serve as the central link in the ocean food chain for fish, mammals, seabirds, and turtles.

Contrary to a recent report published by the Marine Conservation Alliance, an industry group in Alaska, the law does not implement management that fully protects the marine ecosystem. In fact, it makes minimal progress toward this destination. On the West Coast, for example, the Pacific Fishery Management Council continues to drive the population of Pacific whiting to unsustainable levels, potentially jeopardizing a critical food source for ocean wildlife. Fishermen and conservationists in New England are trying to reform current management of Atlantic herring - a critical forage fish for many species in that marine ecosystem - because of concerns that industrial mid-water trawl ships are leaving too few of these fish in the ocean. The National Marine Fisheries Service should include in its regulations for the new law specific guidelines for conservative management of these forage fish to ensure the well-being of all ocean wildlife.

These few steps would help get the management of our oceans away from its "unnatural history" and on the right course toward a better future for our seas.

If you would like more information, please contact Julie Sherman at 503-704-6438 or at [email protected]

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