WASHINGTON -- To hear National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials tell it, depleted fish stocks from Hawaii to New England are on the rebound.
"There's no doubt things are improving," Bill Hogarth, NOAA assistant administrator for fisheries, said in an interview Friday. "The mechanism is in place to rebuild these stocks."
But environmentalists, academics and some lawmakers have a different view. They speak of fish populations that have experienced precipitous declines and are just now struggling to rebuild. They note that out of the 215 stocks the government tracks, one-third, or 76, are being fished faster than they can reproduce. The popular George's Bank cod in New England has sunk 77 percent since 1978, while the West Coast rockfish known as bocaccio has nearly vanished, declining 97 percent since the late 1960s.
The critics, who say bocaccio will take a century to recover even though they are no longer directly fished, blame a failed management system initially aimed at promoting the domestic fishing industry over foreign competitors.
"It's not raging environmentalists who say the sky is falling," said Mark Powell, director of fish conservation for the Ocean Conservancy. "It's our experts."
Fishermen are also often frustrated, struggling to make a living at the same time federal officials are imposing new restrictions in an effort to protect vulnerable species.
Zeke Grader, who represents the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations, said some family-owned boat operators who used to catch groundfish are "off the water" now. "They're out of business," Grader said. "The quotas have been cut so small, they just can't afford to operate any more."
The debate over how best to manage and preserve America's fisheries has intensified in recent months. A series of independent commissions has called for reform, and last week two House Democrats introduced legislation that would change how the fishery management councils -- the eight groups that control U.S. waters in the Atlantic, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific -- operate.
For nearly 30 years, the fisheries have been governed under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which was aimed at halting fishing incursions in U.S. waters by nations such as Russia and Japan. The act prohibited foreign fleets from fishing within 200 miles of the coast. It also created councils composed of state and federal officials, commercial and recreational fishermen, and a few academics to determine how many fish can be caught each year.
The councils, which have between 15 and 20 members each, are by far the most controversial feature of the current fisheries management system. Sixty percent of appointed members have a direct financial interest in the fisheries they regulate but are exempt from federal conflict-of-interest rules. Members can recuse themselves from council decisions that pose a conflict of interest, but the National Marine Fisheries Service could only document two such recusals since 1997, according to a 2003 study funded by the Pew Charitable Trust titled "Taking Stock."
Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, D-W.Va., who has introduced legislation to extend conflict-of-interest rules to council members, compared the current system to "the fox guarding the chicken house. It's like asking the mining industry to regulate mining safety."
John Dunnigan, a 28-year fisheries service veteran who directs the agency's Office of Sustainable Fisheries, said in an interview, "We knew from the beginning there was a conflict of interest embedded in the fishing council system. I think we need to admit that."
In addition to repealing council members' exemptions from conflict-of-interest laws, critics suggest regional bodies composed of scientists, rather than the councils, set catch limits, and that the government appoint more conservationists to the panels.
Federal officials say they rely on the fishermen's expertise to help guide their decision making. And they emphasize they have final say over the councils' rulings.
"We are not just sitting here rubber-stamping what the councils have said," said Rebecca Lent, the fisheries service's deputy director.
According to the Pew study, however, the fisheries service overruled just 0.4 percent of the councils' actions between 1980 and 1993. Lent said her agency had become increasingly aggressive in recent years, citing its late April decision to toughen fishing restrictions the New England council had placed on cod.
Lent and other federal officials said they have had several success stories in the past few years, particularly since Congress amended the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1996. The agency has been working on a rebuilding plan for the North Atlantic swordfish, for example, and six years into the 10-year plan, it has reached 94 percent of its goal. Last year, officials implemented a national plan to reduce bycatch -- inadvertently caught fish -- in each region of the country.
In 1999, environmentalists sued over the state of summer flounder in the mid-Atlantic after government scientists said the initial rebuilding plan had an 18 percent chance of success. The fisheries service modified the strategy in response to a court order, and flounder is now off the agency's overfished list.
Part of the government's problem stems from trying to meet the needs of the fishing industry at the same time it seeks to protect fish stocks. Hogarth noted the domestic fishing fleet generates $60 billion a year.
"This is an extremely valuable industry for this country," he said. "A lot of communities depend on these fisheries."
Federal officials reopened the swordfish fishery in Hawaii this spring after requiring technology that would better protect turtles from being caught, for example, though environmentalists and some biologists warn they may have moved too quickly.
The fisheries service also faces budget constraints, which have impeded data collection on how much fish is available. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut its 2005 budget by about 16 percent from President Bush's request, from $623 million to $526 million.
Hogarth said he was "very concerned about" the funding levels. "It's costly to do fishing work."
In Alaska, for example, the fishing industry pays from $11 million to $12 million a year to have two federal observers at all times on pollock boats, and vessels shorter than 125 feet carry federal observers 30 percent of the time. At-Sea Processors Association spokesman Jim Gilmore, whose organization represents Alaska pollock fishermen, likes to tell other fishing groups, "If you had a program like this, maybe you'd have a lot of fish."
For the moment, federal fisheries like to point out that in 2003, they took more fish off the "overfished" list than they added. But Hogarth acknowledged it will take several more years before the agency can silence its critics.
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