Ocean fish will no longer be treated like an infinite resource, but the next question is whether this sea change in American law comes too late.

Amazing was the correct word to describe congressional action revamping the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. In a Congress that broke new ground in terms of irrelevance and sheer laziness, this was like a lousy movie with an unexpectedly interesting ending.

It is surprising whenever any assembly of American politicians acknowledges that the future extends beyond the next election, especially when it comes to natural resources. Historically, "Use it up and devil take the hind-most" was our motto when it came to oil, fisheries and a host of other forms of national wealth.

That this is beginning to change when it comes to marine fisheries is a testimonial to fishermen. From Astoria to Cape Cod, the men and women who harvest the ocean's diminishing riches are the strongest advocates for policies that will bequeath their treasured lifestyles to the next generation. Had they chosen to obstruct this law, there is no doubt it would have sunk along with so much other worthy but doomed legislation.

For we landlubbers, the ocean is little but a pretty view. For fishermen, it is life itself.

As the Chinook Observer has remarked in the past, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council is ahead of game in bringing reality to fish allocation and conservation. Though not without flaws, the management process in Oregon and Washington turned a corner some years ago, actively striving to match harvests with reality in ways that ensure fish for 2007, 2017 and 2117.

The new system of individual fishing quotas may help this goal, if correctly implemented by each of the regional councils. Its objective of eliminating the old "derby" style fishing seasons - in which everyone scrambles to catch as much as they can as soon as the season starts - is certainly laudable. It will be important, however, to monitor the implementation of quotas to insure fairness to smaller boats that might tend to be swamped by big harvesters with bigger quotas. There have been some significant problems in this regard in Alaska and elsewhere.

Also noteworthy is the new requirement that regional councils heed the advice of scientific and technical panels, something that should have been the case all along. For far too long, objective science has taken a back seat to placating local politicians and special interest groups.

Encouraging as all this seems, the plain fact is that it may be too little, too late for many species. In the open ocean and in the national waters of many developing nations, the free-for-all continues. By at last taking sensible steps ourselves, it is to be hoped we can now exercise greater influence over the fisheries policies of other countries.

All the oceans of the world are interconnected and so too, to a remarkable extent, are fisheries. All nations must heed the warning signs of collapsing fisheries before there is nothing left to recover.

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