ANCHORAGE - The U.S. House has opened deliberations over renewing the primary law that regulates commercial ocean fishing.
A committee chaired by Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, held a hearing Thursday that focused on whether the National Marine Fisheries Service has gone too far in trying to protect essential fish habitat.
One hallmark of the last round of improvements to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act four years ago was its requirement that the agency protect the areas where fish propagate.
But the agency considers roughly 95 percent of the ocean waters inside the U.S. 200-mile zone as essential fish habitat. Critics contend that has resulted in land-use restrictions Congress never intended.
Jack Phelps, executive director of the Alaska Forestry Association, testified Thursday that there was no justification for such a sweeping new program.
Phelps, who also represented a coalition of industries ranging from cattlemen to home-builders, said the agency's Essential Fish Habitat program ``has grown into yet another regulatory impediment imposed by the Congress on businesses.''
``The EFH regulations could delay or stop a timber harvest-related permit in Alaska or a water diversion project to irrigate a field in California,'' Phelps said.
Young criticized Penny Dalton, the Commerce Department's assistant administrator of fisheries, for issuing regulations that go beyond what Congress required.
He said Congress envisioned the program as a way to protect ``hot spots,'' or crucial habitat under threat of damage because of fisheries practices or onshore activities.
Dalton said that may have been the goal. But she said there wasn't enough scientific evidence available to identify those areas, so the agency was taking precautions to protect most of the waters where the 700 varieties of commercial fish are found.
``The EFH program has not been used to shut down fisheries,'' Dalton said. ``It hasn't been used to shut down industries.''
Earlier Thursday, the Marine Fish Conservation Network held a press conference to condemn the fisheries service for not taking prompt action to stop overfishing despite strong conservation mandates in the 1996 reauthorization.
The coalition of environmentalists, fishermen and marine scientists said economic disasters caused by fishery collapses have cost U.S. taxpayers $160 million since 1994.
``Taxpayers are having to cast a lifeline to fishermen and their families because federal fishery managers have repeatedly failed to ensure the sustainability of the fisheries on which we all depend,'' said Lee Crockett, the network's executive director.
Despite the flurry of complaints, it isn't likely Congress will do much to change the Magnuson Act this year.
Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican and a leading Senate player on fisheries issues, said earlier there may not be time in the election-shortened congressional session for anything more than some minor tinkering with the law.
Stevens also said more time is probably needed before tackling several hot-button fisheries allocation issues. Those range from whether to authorize issuing fishermen rights to catch a set amount of fish, which they could transfer to another fisherman, or expanding the use of cooperatives where fishing companies unite to divide the catch among themselves.
Young told the Anchorage Daily News during a break in Thursday's hearing that he and Stevens are still deciding how much, if anything, to pursue this year.