Ocean conservationists are hailing former President Bush for passing tough rules to end the overfishing of 40 struggling marine species before he left the White House.
The rules were issued on Jan. 15 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees U.S. oceans policy. Passage of the rules garnered little attention as President Barack Obama prepared to take power.
Under the new rules, the nation's eight regional fishery management councils will be forced to draw up measures to end overfishing by 2010. In most instances, this would involve putting caps on how many fish can be caught each year.
Fishery managers will need to establish catch limits and goals for each overfished stock. The rules provide for "strong accountability measures" to enforce catch limits, NOAA said.
Generally, ocean conservationists praised Bush for approving the rules before his departure.
"Overfishing is one of the core problems facing U.S. and world fisheries," said Chris Dorsett, a conservation expert with The Ocean Conservancy, a national marine advocacy group.
'Good road map' for Obama
"Everyone is in agreement that this a good road map for the Obama administration to end overfishing," Dorsett said. "We've got the law, we've got the guidance, now it is time to put the guidance into effect."
The new rules were mandated in 2007 by amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The Magnuson-Stevens legislation covers most fishing-related laws.
Fishermen have disputed the need for catch limits, arguing there is not enough evidence suggesting some stocks are overfished.
"A lot of people affected by it have a hard time believing the science," said James Cowan, a fisheries oceanographer at Louisiana State University. "But there are some species that we are very certain about."
Mark Millikin, a fishery manager with NOAA who specializes in overfishing, said the rules cleared up statutory questions posed by regulators with the regional councils.
"The next step is a big step," Millikin said. "The councils will have a big stake in the management of these fish stocks."
"It's an extra level enabling science to be part of the equation to help us end overfishing," Millikin said of the rules.
He said fishermen would "be heavily involved in any management measures."
'Rebellion' in New England
John Sackton, the editor and publisher of Seafood.com, an online industry news service based in Massachusetts, said New England's haddock and cod fishermen — two overfished species — have been the most vocal in their opposition.
"In some parts of the country, this is a nonevent," Sackton said. "In New England, I think there's a complete rebellion which I don't think is going to succeed."
In New England, fishermen object in part because theirs is a mixed fishery where three or four fish species are targeted at the same time, he said.
"If one (stock) is shut down because of overfishing, it shuts down the rest," Sackton said.
Recreational and commercial fishing is big business in the United States, worth about $185 billion in sales in 2006, NOAA said. Fishing supports more than 2 million jobs, the agency said.
Although many species are overfished, there is only one marine fish species on the endangered list, the smalltooth sawfish in waters off the coast of Florida.
"We have more species that are recovering than are declining, so in terms of the ones we know enough about, the U.S. is actually doing a pretty good job," Cowan said.