New York Newsday [Printer-friendly version] June 6, 2006 EDITORIAL: WE NEED TO WORK TOGETHER TO CONSERVE FISH [Rachel's introduction: "As we attempt to preserve habitat, we should follow the precautionary principle: Even if science has not yet determined every last detail of how a habitat nurtures fish, if we have strong evidence that it's essential, we must preserve it."] On the way from the deep to our plates, the life journey of fish depends heavily on preservation of the habitat that produces them. So the struggle over habitat is vital to the well-being of our seas and the survival of the fishing industry. That fight takes many forms. The Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which updated the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act, ordered the regional fishery management councils to designate and protect essential fish habitat for federally managed fish species. That gives councils a powerful tool for commenting on - and even influencing -- actions by other agencies that might harm habitat. But it's a tool not always used. So environmental groups have more than once sued the federal fishery bureaucracy for failing to consider habitat sufficiently. One suit involved tilefish, a major species for Montauk. In crafting a management plan, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council did examine whether some fishermen, using trawling gear to chase other fish, are hurting tilefish burrows. The council found insufficient evidence of damage to burrows. So the Natural Resources Defense Council sued in 2001, arguing that the analysis was defective, and the government should have protected the habitat. The NRDC lost, but there will be other suits, here and elsewhere. Another habitat protection strategy, not yet widely enough used, is the designation of marine protected areas, where fishermen either can't fish at all or can't use gear that would damage habitat. One ardent advocate of this is right here on Long Island: David Conover, the dean of the Marine Sciences Research Center at Stony Brook University. When commercial fishermen hear "essential fish habitat," they fear closure of areas where they've fished for years. When recreational fishermen hear "marine protected area," that sounds to them like closure too. So some recreational fishermen have been pushing for "freedom to fish" legislation, to block the designation of protected areas. So far, it hasn't made much headway. Nor should it. After all, marine protected areas are not exactly new. Rod Fujita, an Environmental Defense expert on this, points out that, for centuries, Pacific Islanders took that holistic approach, to conserve the precious resource that kept them alive. There's no reason it can't work now. In fact, in the North Pacific region, 380,000 square nautical miles of ocean, the size of New England, are already protected from bottom trawling. Habitat issues are not easy. For example, it seems like just common sense to say that we should protect coral formations, the nurseries for many species, from trawling gear damage. Fishermen argue that no sane fisherman would hurt coral -- but some fishermen must be doing it. The advocacy organization Oceana has strong before-and-after photographic evidence. As we attempt to preserve habitat, we should follow the precautionary principle: Even if science has not yet determined every last detail of how a habitat nurtures fish, if we have strong evidence that it's essential, we must preserve it. In addition to conserving fish, we must protect fishing communities. So, if habitat preservation requires a reduction of trawling, policy makers must find ways to ease transition costs for fishermen, such as buying back excess gear that current practices and market conditions encouraged them to buy. Habitat preservation demands cooperation, not conflict: a creative alignment of science and markets, to save both fish and fishermen. It's a harmony that we must achieve. Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.