Senator No Friend to Washington Fishersby Chris Wells & Amy Grondin, Guest Columnists
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 14, 2003
In 2002, commercial fishermen brought 32.7 million pounds of fish into Bellingham, Olympia and Seattle alone. It's difficult to imagine facing already formidable economic problems in Washington with many of the jobs and exports supported by that catch taken away. That's exactly what we may face if four riders that Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens has attached to the Senate appropriations bill are enacted.
The United States draws half its seafood catch from Alaska's prolific fisheries, and most of Washington's fishing industry jobs depend on Alaskan fish. Thanks to an extraordinarily productive ecosystem and relatively conservative fisheries management, Alaskan fish stocks generally are not as overfished as those of other regions. But the success of Alaskan fishery management relative to the true poverty other regions face after years of overfishing only makes Stevens' riders all the more disturbing and hard to understand.
The most egregious rider would allow the fishing industry to trawl for pollock in an Aleutian Islands fishery that has been closed since 1988. Reopening the harvest will overwhelm the fishery, which has not recovered enough to feed the endangered Steller sea lion and sustain intensive commercial fishing at the same time. A federal judge recently ruled that the Bush administration must strengthen existing pollock protections to save the sea lions; Stevens' rider flies in the face of this ruling.
Another rider would prohibit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries department from designating Essential Fish Habitat, protection by which fish may thrive during various life stages. Another would turn management of the fisheries over to the very fishing corporations responsible for much of the ocean crisis.
For Washington residents, the health of fish beneath Alaska's waters may seem a distant problem. But damage to Alaskan fisheries would have a significant impact on Seattle's economy; of 25,000 Washington citizens employed by the fishing industry, more than half depend on the health of the Alaskan catch for their jobs.
We simply cannot afford to follow the example set by New Hampshire, where years of overfishing and poor management directly caused the cod, haddock and yellow-tail flounder fisheries to collapse. Had these fisheries been sustainably managed, catches of cod alone would still be contributing millions of dollars annually to New England's economy. But fishing was unrestrained until far too late, and today cod are so rare that on these historically rich fishing grounds most fishermen no longer try to catch them.
Similar missteps in the North Pacific could ruin the Alaskan marine ecosystem. The likely impacts of Stevens' riders would spell economic downfall for many of Washington's fishermen, inevitably affecting the economy of Seattle and Washington.
Many of America's oceans need stronger conservation policies. But regulators in Alaska generally are making the effort to manage sustainably, and Stevens' riders would only undo their efforts. Alaska's fish, Seattle's fishermen and all of us who participate in the Northwest economy need Alaska's history of conservation to stay strong.
When these riders are debated on the Senate floor, Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell must stand up to Stevens to ensure healthy marine ecosystems, strong fish populations and long-term employment for thousands of Washingtonians.
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