The federal agency in charge of protecting the nation's oceans announced Thursday it is ramping up efforts to expand new rules aimed at lessening the cutthroat competition among fishermen that has threatened dozens of ocean species.
At the same time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conceded it will not be able to fully meet deadlines set by Congress to end overfishing by 2010 for unhealthy stocks, and 2011 on all stocks in U.S. ocean waters.
NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco said they were "on track" to meet the deadlines on some species, but not all.
"We still have more than 20 percent of fish stocks that are not rebuilt, and a larger proportion of fisheries are not meeting their economic potential," Lubchenco said in a teleconference from Washington, D.C. "This is a tool we believe will help us realize the full economic and biological benefits of rebuilt fisheries."
The management system being backed by NOAA _ called catch-share _ is seen as a way to end overfishing.
It's a relatively new approach, imposing a strict overall catch limit and dividing that total catch among individuals such as fishermen, communities, cooperatives or companies. Studies have found that when fishermen no longer have to race to fill their nets, they make more money by fishing less while doing a better job of conserving.
The new draft policy _ meant to build support among fishermen and regional fishery management councils for catch shares _ will go through a four-month public comment period ending April 10 before final adoption.
A marine biologist, Lubchenco has pushed catch shares as part of a comprehensive national ocean policy endorsed by President Barack Obama. But it can take years for regional fishery management councils to work through the process. Meanwhile, fishermen have struggled to make a living while fish processors have tried to gain more control.
Lubchenco said the latest NOAA appropriations bill currently in the Senate includes $18.6 million for the agency to help regional councils consider catch share, on top of the $6 million in the current budget. She emphasized the system is not mandatory.
The Environmental Defense Fund praised the new policy, saying that catch shares have restored fish populations while improving the livelihoods of fishermen.
"This policy will reverse the freefall that U.S. fish stocks have been in for decades," David Festa, vice president of Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. "It moves fisheries management into the 21st Century."
Lee Crockett, federal fishery policy chief for Pew Environment Group, cautioned it is important to design catch shares so that they strengthen conservation, and keep small-scale operators in business, without allowing the biggest players to take over.
Catch shares have been used in the U.S. since 1990, and now cover 13 fisheries, including Alaskan halibut, Gulf red snapper and Atlantic surf clams.
The West Coast's most valuable fishery, a group of bottom-dwelling species known as groundfish, has been rebuilding since 2000, when harvests were cut in half to protect overfished rockfish. Despite limiting harvests and cutting the fleet through buybacks, several groundfish species remain overfished. After five years of work, the fishery is to move into catch share management in 2011.
The New England groundfish fishery, which has been struggling for 15 years to rebuild cod and flounder stocks, is moving into a catch shares system in which fishermen divide themselves into "sectors" and manage an allotted catch.
According to NOAA, commercial fishing landings are worth $4 billion a year dockside, and rebuilding overfished stocks would increase those values by 54 percent.
Meanwhile, the nation's appetite for fish outstrips domestic supply, with 80 percent of the seafood consumed coming from imports.