PACIFIC OCEAN - "Amazing." That's the word Peter Huhtala, senior policy director for the Pacific Marine Conservation Council, uses to describe his reaction to Congressional action on fisheries protection.

Congress early Saturday approved the bill to revamp management of the nation's marine fisheries and strengthen protections against overfishing of dwindling stocks.

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

The House approved the measure by voice vote. The Senate previously adopted the measure.

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 in waters between three miles and 200 miles offshore.

Huhtala said the bill did not roll back any of the conservation measures of the current law and strengthened requirements to end overfishing and rebuild overfished populations.

"This is an amazing bipartisan effort on the part of Congress that we rarely see," said Huhtala. "We're especially pleased that we secured standards for limited access privilege programs, or IFQs, individual fishing quotas, with a time limit of 10 years on these programs. That ensures fish in the ocean remain a public resource, and it reduces the potential for privatizing America's fisheries. There are provisions that protect fishing communities against excessive consolidation of shares."

Brad Pettinger, the administrator of the Oregon Trawl Commission, said the bill would be a wake-up call for other regions, but the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council already does much of what the bill is now requiring. The one exception is the individual fishing quotas, which the Council has already begun developing.

The Council has spent three years developing its own quota system that does not put a time limit on individual fishermen's quotas, said Pettinger. But the bill limits them to just 10 years. "We might have to start back at ground zero," he said.

The idea the Council was working with was offering lifetime individual quotas to fishermen to help them customize their business, said Pettinger.

"Instead of catching a little of this and a little of that there would be some specialization going on so you do one or two things really well, building up some kind of business for long term," he said.

Huhtala said some bigger fishing and processing corporations would be disappointed by the limitations set for the quotas.

"If you're in a position where you would get ownership of ocean for perpetuity, and now you can't, you're not going to like that," said Huhtala. "If you're in position where you want to acquire a quota and consolidate to a large degree and add to your corporate wealth you're not going to like this."

Huhtala said another bonus in the bill is the elevated role of science in fisheries management because councils are now required to heed the recommendations of the science and statistics committees when setting catch limits. However, the bill does not reform conflict of interest problems on the councils, he said. Council members are not required to recuse themselves from a vote if they have a financial interest in the fishery, and the council members still appoint the members of the science and statistics committees.

- This story includes reporting by the Associated Press.

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