There are few if any government processes that generate more intense local interest than the determination of fishing seasons and rules by the National Marine Fisheries Service. So NMFS's plan to ax many public comment periods from 45 days to 14 should excite substantial adverse reaction.

A series of public gatherings, hearings and documentation are now required so NMFS can comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. This all is a sort of old-fashioned town hall meeting that extends up and down the fishing communities of the West Coast and the rest of the nation. Sometimes raucous and untidy affairs, it's easy to imagine how they might wear on the patience of federal officials.

These officials need to continue to live with it. It is absurd to think that fishermen and the public at large might have as little as two weeks to absorb NMFS proposals and formulate coherent written responses. This is particularly true of commercial ocean fishermen, who may easily be at sea for two weeks or longer.

Sharply curtailed comment periods are one of several troubling deficiencies embedded in agency rule-setting updates. A broad review was mandated by Congress when it rewrote the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, signed into law last year by President Bush. This law was in need of modernization, but original author U.S. Sen. Warren "Maggie" Magnuson, D-Wash., would be flabbergasted to see fishermen so robbed of power over their own livelihoods.

Maggie played a key role in convincing President Richard Nixon to sign NEPA into law in 1970 and would also be aghast about how NMFS is toying with this premier environmental-protection law. The agency wants to delegate far more final power to regional fisheries management councils and duck public oversight by lumping crucial decisions together. This "frameworking" process could place an umbrella over superficially similar actions, allowing fishery managers to define their way out of NEPA requirements.

Public engagement in rulemaking is a painful reality of democracy. But in a nation where all too many people aren't all that interested in participation, NMFS ought to be grateful to have lots of avidly engaged stakeholders. It should scrap this set of revisions and revisit the subject with a view to preserving the public's opportunities to comment. Under no circumstances should we permit NEPA to be eroded by the bad precedent NMFS is advocating.

There is considerable congressional opposition to these new rules, in the form of a letter demanding changes. Citizens also can speak on this matter. Comments may be made until Aug. 12 by e-mailing (NEPAprocedures@noaa.gov). The subject line must read "MSA Environmental Review Procedures."

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