Despite the recommendations of two non-partisan national commissions, including one appointed by President Bush, which called for strengthening the nation's bedrock ocean fishery law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, some members of Congress are racing off in the opposite direction.

House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-CA), along with Representatives Barney Frank (D-MA) and Don Young (R-AK), has proposed legislation that would be especially destructive and take us backwards in the conservation and management of our nation's ocean fisheries. If adopted, this bill would degrade longstanding safeguards to our oceans and pose serious economic and environmental threats to coastal communities and the American industries that depend on healthy oceans, all while limiting public involvement and access to information about the way fisheries are governed.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, as is stands today, is a strong law. It was first enacted in 1976 to create a domestic fishing industry in U.S. territorial waters generally from 3 to 200 miles off our coasts. Important conservation measures were added when this bill was last amended in 1996 to ensure that these industries remain profitable for years to come. Rather than building on the existing strengths of this law and improving conservation tools, the Pombo bill takes us in the opposite direction. This is a big departure from the Senate bill authored by Senators Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Daniel Inouye (D-HI), which maintains current protections and aims to provide new tools for conservation and management.

Fisheries' Futures Are At Risk

Current fishery conservation measures should be maintained and strengthened. Rolling back critical protections, as outlined in Pombo's bill, could cause substantial harm, such as:

Further Depleting Fish Stocks: By changing and distorting the definition of "overfished," the bill would make it far less likely that fish populations, even severely depleted ones, would be declared overfished. This means that actions necessary to rebuild these populations will be delayed or could be avoided. The bill also includes broad exceptions that would slow the pace of fishery rebuilding when a population is declared overfished. This proposal will delay economic returns, reduce net profits, and jeopardize the recovery of some fish populations.

Competing Priorities for Sanctuaries: The bill makes the commercial interest of fishery yields a higher priority than protection of sanctuaries -- akin to national parks in the ocean -- which are needed to protect ocean biodiversity and promote overall ocean health. Fishing industries should not determine how unique marine areas are governed.

Limiting Public Involvement: Communities have an important role to play in deciding how public assets, such as our oceans, are used and managed. The new proposal would restrict the ability of the public, including fishermen, to participate in decision-making processes. And it would also take public information about the health of our oceans and lock it behind closed doors as confidential.