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Overhaul of fisheries law likely

WASHINGTON -- Congress was poised to pass a bill last night to revamp management of the nation's marine fisheries and strengthen protections against overfishing of dwindling stocks.

The sweeping bill requires the use of annual catch limits and enhances the authority of eight regional fishery management councils, as Congress struggles to protect vulnerable fish stocks while keeping struggling fishing industries afloat.

The Senate adopted the measure on Thursday. The House was expected to vote on it late yesterday before Congress adjourns for the year.

The bill reauthorizes the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act through 2013. The 30-year-old law is the main law guiding fishery management 3 to 200 miles offshore.

Supporters said the bill would strengthen current law by requiring an end to overfishing, science-based management of the nation's fisheries, and penalties for illegal fishing in international waters.

"Our oceans are in serious trouble, and this legislation will help to reverse their decline," said Sarah Chasis, director of the Oceans Initiative for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

She and other environmentalists hailed a provision in the bill establishing a "cap and trade" system that sets limits on the number of fish that can be caught, while allowing fishermen flexibility in how they divide up shares of the catch.

Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, a Republican who chairs the subcommittee that oversees the nation's fisheries, said the bill would provide an economic lifeline to fishermen while ensuring a secure supply of fish.

"This legislation is not a perfect solution, but I believe we have struck an appropriate balance between preserving the marine resources of our coastal communities with these fisheries management tools," she said.

Senator Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who led efforts to update the law that bears his name, said lawmakers had heeded a call by President Bush to reauthorize the fishing law. Bush had called overfishing harmful to the United States and the world.

Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington, said the new law builds on the legacy created by her predecessor, Warren Magnuson, also a Democrat, who cosponsored the original in 1976.

At the insistence of West Coast lawmakers, the bill includes language to speed recovery of Klamath River salmon stocks in California and Oregon. There would also be disaster relief for fishermen hurt by recent closures aimed at protecting threatened fish.

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