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How Minnesotans Can "Fish" for More Sustainable Ocean Life

April 15, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS – This week marks the 35th anniversary of the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), the federal law that is helping to rebuild America's depleted ocean fish populations and ensure their long-term sustainability.

While the law has laid the groundwork, Peter Sorensen, professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology at the University of Minnesota, believes individuals can also make a difference through their buying decisions. He cites examples where consumers have driven the market toward sustainable fishing practices - such as cod.

"They now catch them by hand-line off Cape Cod and sell them as a gourmet product in Boston, just because many people won't buy the ones off the large fishing fleets that have basically been almost responsible for the extinction of that species."

Sorensen recommends checking the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood WATCH" program ( It includes online resources, pocket guidelines, and even phone 'apps' that provide the most up-to-date information on making sustainable fish and seafood purchases.

Whether buying at a market or restaurant, or stocking a home aquarium, Sorensen says it's a good idea to ask where the fish came from.

"If it was caught in a sustainable way, a thoughtful way – marketed and shipped in a thoughtful, environmentally friendly way – they will, of course, know how it was captured, where it came from, and probably how old it is. If they don't know, that almost always means that it came from a third party whose reliability should be questioned."

While consumer demand plays its part, Lee Crockett, director of federal fishery policy for Pew Environment Group, believes federal policy has a critical role in preserving the nation's fisheries. He remembers his days with the Coast Guard off New England, when huge Russian fishing trawlers dwarfed his little patrol boat.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act initially put a stop to foreign over-fishing in American waters, but it paved the way for a U.S. fishing fleet that also over-fished, says Crockett.

"And so in 1996, the Congress passed the first set of amendments to the Magnuson Act that were designed to change the law from promoting fishing to conserving fish. So, there were requirements to not put economics before conservation when setting catch levels for rebuilding depleted fish populations."

Another round of amendments in 2006 set catch limits and since then, notes Crockett, several species are on the road to recovery, including bluefish, summer flounder, sea scallops, and red snapper.

Some in the fishing industry are calling on Congress to relax MSA restrictions because of their economic impact on fishermen, although Crockett is convinced there are better alternatives than weakening conservation.

"One of the ways that is sort of win-win for everybody is programs called Cooperative Research, where you take fishermen, and you use their expertise and their vessels to go out and collect information on the fish in the ocean. So, you're providing some economic benefit for the fishermen, and you're developing some better information to manage our fish."

Sharon Rolenc, Public News Service - MN