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Do Rockfish Celebrate Anniversaries?

April 13, 2011

PORTLAND, Ore. - Rockfish along the Pacific coast are still in short supply - but not as short as they might have been without a law passed 35 years ago today.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act originally was intended to stop overfishing in U.S. waters by foreign ships, and is now used as the basis for managing fish populations from three miles off the coast. Although the law has been amended substantially in more than three decades, conservation groups say it has done its job well.

That sentiment is echoed by Steve Gainey, who represents Oregon as director of the Pew Environment Group's Regional Fisheries Initiative.

"It's the story of the evolution of a successful Act. It's still growing and evolving, but its 35-year history shows that it is flexible and successful, and has a good process when applied. As you can see by just the health of our fisheries; we've turned a corner in dramatically recovering them."

Some species of rockfish are endangered, and Gainey says their "comeback"' is a work in progress - but it is based, like all actions under Magnuson-Stevens, on science.

"The trick in rebuilding and in recovering stocks is making sure that you stick with the plan, and that you don't change course on the first few signs of good news and go back to failed past habits. You can't go back in too hard, too soon."

Carl Safina, president of the Blue Ocean Institute and host of the PBS series "Saving the Ocean," says foreign fishing boats used to be easy to spot off the U.S. coast. The Magnuson-Stevens Act may have pushed them out to fish 200 miles offshore, but in Safina's view, problems persist for some species.

"It has not worked well for maintaining the stocks of the big offshore fish like sharks and billfishes and tunas that lots and lots of countries are hammering away at."

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has proposed the latest amendment, to lengthen the time period for rebuilding fish stocks. He says it would give fishermen in his area a better chance to make a living. Critics of that idea say weakening the law would not help the commercial fishing industry in the long run.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR