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Bid to end overfishing stirs debate on Gulf Coast

By Garry Mitchell
Associated Press Writer

MOBILE — While charter boat owners protest new catch limits, a public interest group Wednesday applauded efforts by the federal government to end overfishing and urged regulators to accurately monitor the Gulf of Mexico catch.

Fishery managers should create "clear, equitable, and consistent accountability measures that keep fish stocks out of trouble if annual catch limits are exceeded," the Washington, D.C.-based group said in a letter Wednesday to Bill Hogarth, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The letter from U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) was released at a news conference in Mobile by spokeswoman Emily Stone, joined by about a dozen representatives of area conservation and environmental groups.

One of them, Mike Bosarge, a spokesman for the 180-member Mobile Bay Kayak Fishing Association, applauded efforts to protect the fish populations but said NMFS needs to take action "to start saving the Gulf."

"Small fishermen are sick and tired of seeing too many of our fish taken out of the Gulf," Bosarge said.

Annual catch limits

While charter boat operators say new limits are driving them out of business, Stone applauded the passage of a 2006 federal act that seeks to end overfishing by 2010, particularly for red snapper. It requires all fisheries to be regulated under annual catch limits, with accountability measures to ensure that catches do not exceed the limit.

Federal officials are drawing up regulations to implement the new law — a process that's drawing comment from various fishing interests.

"For some sectors, it's going to be disaster," said University of South Alabama marine biologist Dr. Bob Shipp, who serves on the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council.

On the Alabama coast, charter boat owners at Orange Beach met Tuesday night to discuss the law's affect on their industry.

"We want Congress to understand there are unintended consequences with these actions. I don't believe that our elected officials had any idea what would happen to the multibillion-dollar industry of recreational fishing," Bobbi Walker, president of the Orange Beach Fishing Association, told The Associated Press by e-mail Wednesday.

Walker said the new fishing restrictions — a product of "radical environmentalists" — have already forced 10 charter boats out of business on the Alabama coast, leaving about 100 in operation. The boat owners have mortgages and expenses to cover on their vessels.

Under the new law, if a sector exceeds a catch one year by 500,000 pounds, for example, the next year it must cut back 500,000 pounds, Shipp said.

The commercial and recreational fishing industry provides thousands of jobs and generates millions of dollars in revenue.

Public testimony

Stone said public testimony on the new law is expected Oct. 31 in Biloxi, Miss., at the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council's regular meeting. The council manages fishing in federal waters off Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the west coast of Florida.

Stone said residents, fishermen, scientists and business people who support a healthy Gulf still must push for changes being considered by National Marine Fisheries Service regional councils.

The letter to Hogarth, endorsed by a diverse group of some 60 scientists, environmentalists and other interested parties, called for independent science committees on each council to set "science-based" annual catch limits that include a precautionary approach or buffers to keep actual catch below the level of overfishing with a high percentage of certainty.

Shipp said the council already gets such scientific advice from a council committee.

"Some people feel like NMFS has too much influence on that committee. It's a debatable thing," Shipp said.

Many of the fish listed as overfished or headed in that direction in the Gulf, like red snapper and greater amberjack, have been in trouble for decades, according to a U.S. PIRG Education Fund report released Wednesday.

The letter to Hogarth says NMFS and the regional councils cannot continue the practice of managing up to the edge of what's theoretically sustainable without breaking the law that bans overfishing.

"There is too much uncertainty in the ocean about how many fish are really out there and how well they are reproducing and growing to allow for that growth," the letter says.

The letter also called for immediate penalties or compensatory action for going over the annual catch limit, and for accurate, timely reporting and aggregation of total catch from all sectors — commercial, charter and recreational.

To that end, the letter says, data from each fishery should be collected as soon as possible after landing the fish.

, which will mean less overshooting and undershooting of annual catch limits.

Shipp said the Fisheries Service will need funding to do what is being proposed.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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