My turn: 30 years and going strong

Posted: Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Many Alaskans this month are celebrating the 30th anniversary of a piece of legislation that has profoundly and positively affected our state. Passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in December of 1976 created a billion-dollar industry in Alaska that has provided jobs and economic vitality to our coastal communities and fostered stewardship of our marine resources.

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The bipartisan bill, sponsored by Washington Democrat Warren Magnuson and Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, is best known for extending the federal government's jurisdiction from 12 to 200 miles offshore. Prior to the act foreign fishing fleets freely harvested huge volumes of groundfish like pollock and sole in those waters.

The 200-mile limit allowed this large-scale fishery to be "Americanized," and Alaskans jumped at the opportunity. Alaska's pollock fishery is the largest fishery in the nation, and Alaska accounts for more than half of America's seafood landings. Dutch Harbor and Kodiak became the nation's top fishing ports. Later passage of the Community Development Quota program allowed residents of other Bering Sea communities to share in the bounty.

But the greatest legacy of the act is of ocean stewardship. Prior to the act's passage, those foreign fleets were virtually unregulated and harvested fish stocks at levels we now recognize as unsustainable.

The act established a series of regional councils to govern these fisheries and required scientifically valid plans to manage fish stocks for the long-run. The regional council concept was part of the genius of the act, not regulating the fishery through distant bureaucrats but putting local fishermen with real-life expertise at the table.

If anyone thought that local fishermen and processors would merely vote their pocketbooks, putting profit ahead of conservation, Alaska proved them wrong. Alaskans learned the lesson of resource conservation the hard way, as lax territorial management led our salmon fisheries to the brink of collapse until state managers followed scientific recommendations to restore runs to the record levels of today.

As the act is applied in Alaska, fishermen and fishery managers listen to scientists and stay within strict catch limits. As a result, our fisheries are healthy and abundant and not a single stock is overfished. Many are certified as sustainable. Bycatch is closely monitored and has been substantially reduced. Extensive swaths of ocean floor have been closed to fishing to protect essential habitat. By taking such steps, Alaska is widely recognized as a model of fishery management.

And now the "Alaska Model" will be applied to fisheries across the nation. As we marked the act's 30th anniversary, Congress recently gave it a breath of new life, passing a bill to renew and strengthen the original. Again passed in bipartisan fashion, with Sen. Ted Stevens and Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye taking the lead, the reauthorized act is largely based on the lessons learned in Alaska.

It maintains strict controls on overfishing; requires fishery managers to set harvests at or below levels recommended by their scientists; strengthens fishery monitoring and enforcement; protects and promotes local seafood based economies; and maintains the regional council process that keeps decision making local.

The reauthorized act will strengthen fishery conservation across the nation, better serve fishing communities, and by adopting the "Alaska Model," the new bill rejected calls for more radical changes, such as replacing the regional council process with an ill-advised centralized fish bureaucracy.

Passage of the renewed act in the waning days of the 109th Congress is another reason for Alaskans to celebrate and is a fitting tribute to the leadership of the man who played a key role in both the original and reauthorized bills: Alaska's Sen. Ted Stevens.

• David Benton is executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, a trade association that represents Alaska groundfish and crab fishermen, processors and fishing communities, and is a former chairman of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.



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