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A senator's vision: Ted Stevens gave the U.S. first-rate fish management

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Posted: Thursday, July 25, 2013 12:00 am

Community Perspective

The approach of Ted Stevens Day in Alaska on Saturday brings back many memories from a lifetime working in fisheries. When Ted Stevens was appointed to a Senate seat in December 1968, I was working on my bachelor’s degree in biology. Today, I am writing as director at the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute in Juneau. In looking back at Ted Stevens’ legislative career (1968-2009), I was reminded of how dramatically it had affected me and everyone else involved in U.S. fisheries.

Never was there a more appropriate namesake for a federal fisheries research facility than Ted Stevens. The legislative record leaves no doubt that Ted Stevens’ vision and tenacity are largely responsible for the laws and government institutions that presently secure the economic, environmental and cultural benefits of our nation’s oceans for all future generations.

Let us never forget that the future of living marine resources off the coasts of the U.S. was far from secure when Ted Stevens first became a member of the U.S. Senate. Beginning in the post World War II era, an army of diplomats, legislators and scientists worked diligently to forge international agreements to control and reduce impacts of high seas fishing.

Nonetheless, most waters off Alaska in 1968 were still wide-open killing fields where the fishing was mostly done by foreign fleets.

Foreign fleets stalked Alaska’s salmon, fishing an estimated 10,000 kilometers of gill net in the western Bering Sea and the Aleutian Islands. One of the darkest periods for Alaska’s salmon occurred in 1973, when the often mighty Bristol Bay sockeye salmon return was reduced to a total of just 2.4 million fish, including an inshore catch of only 761,000. In the Bristol Bay of today, a sockeye salmon catch in the neighborhood of 15 million, like this year, is considered small. In 1973, it was clearly time to do something, but what could be done without the international agreements so many had been seeking?

Sen. Stevens had the clarity of vision to identify a unilateral 200-mile fishing limit as the means to control foreign fishing fleets off the coasts of the U.S., introducing S46, a bill to extend jurisdiction from three to 200 miles in 1971. Although S46 was unsuccessful, in 1975 Sen. Stevens got the support from Sen. Warren Magnuson, of Washington state, who co-sponsored the Fishery Conservation and Management Act enacted by Congress in 1976. Sen. Stevens introduced the motion that renamed the bill the Magnuson Act. Today, it is known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Clearly Sens. Stevens and Magnuson were two among the many leaders of their generation to realize the importance of implementing policies to protect living marine resources and promote domestic fisheries, but they are to be remembered as the two who laid the foundation on which that house was built.

The act of 1976 was a big step in the journey from the uncontrolled, damaging exploitation of the first three post-war decades to the carefully controlled, sustainable harvests of today. The act marked the beginning of a much bigger story that can’t be told here.

What can be said is that, during the next three decades, Sen. Stevens relentlessly pursued the creation of Alaska’s modern commercial fisheries. Those same fisheries make Alaska the prime example of the world’s best-managed fisheries and best-protected living marine resources.

At the end of the senator’s legislative career, Alaska’s commercial fisheries had become a very special, and perhaps unique, public-private partnership in which the entrepreneurial expertise of the nation’s fishing industries is enabled by a federal-state regulatory framework. The public-private partnership and the federal-state regulatory framework have made it possible for the wealth of our nation to be built from the bounty of carefully protected marine ecosystems.

The partnership is certainly building wealth for the nation in Alaska. Alaska topped all other states in both weight of fish landed (5.4 billion pounds) and in the value of those fish ($1.9 billion) in the most recent statistical year (2011) for the nation’s commercial landings. The regulatory framework is also protecting marine ecosystems through application of ecosystem-based management principles.

To take but one example from among the many possible, in 2009 the North Pacific Fishery Management Council closed the waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas between three and 200 miles offshore to all fishing, citing the need to acquire the information necessary to prevent overfishing and protect the health of the entire marine ecosystem before any federal fisheries could be conducted.    

So is it really fair to say that federal and state policies are primarily responsible for the drastic reversal of fortunes for Alaska’s fisheries and associated living marine resources that occurred after 1976? What about climate change? How about advances in the science applied to fishery management decisions? As a fisheries scientist, student of climate change and former fishery regulator, I am here to tell you that neither climate nor science, together or alone, could have achieved and sustained such radical improvements.

As demonstrated daily in other parts of the world’s oceans, modern industrial fishing fleets have the capacity and the technologies to take all that nature can produce, and more, even under the most favorable climate regimes. In the absence of a working regulatory framework that is enabled by a public-private partnership, science is not even factored into harvest regulatory decisions.

Without the protections afforded by the three to 200-mile fisheries zone enacted in 1976, now called the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the level of landings in Alaska’s fisheries, including salmon, that we enjoy today would never have been possible.

Phil Mundy is director of Auke Bay Laboratories, which is headquartered in the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute in Juneau and is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service. The lab has served Alaska and the nation from Juneau since 1958 as a division of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Mundy has worked as a fisheries scientist for a variety of other public and private entities. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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