Federal fisheries policy, an agonizing slow-motion disaster, is lurching toward its ultimate crash with news last week of a coast-wide ban on most forms of bottom fishing. That step will devastate portions of the commercial and recreational fishing industry. As this newspaper has argued, fishing communities on the Columbia estuary have long been at the front line of this battle, in which families and firms have suffered as species after species swirl down the drain.

Key rockfish species are the latest. Heavily targeted following the salmon population crash of the early 1990s, some of these rockfish live for decades and reproduce only slowly. And because many species are mingled together, saving the most endangered likely also will require leaving alone more plentiful species.

The impacts of this in Clatsop and Pacific counties will include loss of fishing and processing jobs, not just those tied to rockfish, but other important species such as Dungeness crab, halibut and albacore tuna. This is because fishermen barred from rockfish can be expected to shift to these few remaining comparatively healthy fisheries.

Fishermen and fisheries biologists have seen this coming for years. So how did we get to this point?

Although federal scientists and most managers have acted in good faith, their efforts have been stymied by lack of funding, conflicting policy goals and national leadership that rarely acknowledges the importance of fisheries' health. Some well-intentioned efforts have back-fired - a prime example is how fishermen are required to discard most fish caught while fishing under license for something else. Though it's meant to keep fishermen from "accidentally on purpose" harvesting species they aren't entitled to, the consequence has been grotesque levels of waste.

The Marine Fish Conservation Network reports that 2.7 billion pounds of nontargeted species are caught and discarded each year in U.S. waters, an appalling level of waste akin to mowing down an entire garden in order to harvest a head of cabbage.

Ocean fisheries are a classic case of ignorance applied to a vast and infinitely complex system. Agencies have tried to manage a strange, largely invisible undersea realm based on information that is sketchy at best. A web of oceanic life that is closely interlinked over thousands of miles of area too often has been managed as if it is made up of isolated, unconnected parts.

Now, the fish and fishermen will be paying the price for many years to come.

Justice demands that the federal government assist in healing the deadly economic wounds caused by its mismanagement. It should start by buying back fishing boats and permits to reduce the commercial rockfish fleet, a step estimated to cost $250 million.

More importantly, fishing communities must be assisted in finding new sustainable directions for their economies. This means meaningful job retraining opportunities, grants for infrastructure and a firm commitment to long-term monitoring of environmental and habitat conditions.

Painful decisions about extinction and economic ruin deserve intelligent analysis. Never again should we have to pay the price for the infuriating ignorance that brought us to this sad ruin.

Tags