Congress passed Magnuson-Stevens 30 years ago in an effort to kick foreign fishing fleets out of U.S. waters, not to conserve species. The act was later amended to include conservation, but the Bush administration and many lawmakers agree it has failed to do the job, and they favor tighter rules.
"The president wants a Magnuson-Stevens bill that ends overfishing, that ensures our fisheries get rebuilt," said James L. Connaughton, Bush's top environmental adviser, although he declined to take sides between the Senate and the House version, which would establish less stringent controls.
Part of the problem is a lack of good data. "Basically, the technology for estimating the abundance of a fish population is still a fishnet," said Brian J. Rothschild, a professor of marine science and technology at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, next door to New Bedford.
At the moment, several regional councils allow catches above the scientifically recommended levels on the theory that deeper cuts will hurt fishing interests too much. Scientists told the Gulf of Mexico council this year that the red snapper catch would have to be held to 5 million pounds to allow the population to recover immediately, and a limit of 7 million pounds would restore it by 2009. Instead, the council endorsed a catch limit of 9.1 million pounds.
"The law does not give the government the authority to step in and end overfishing," said the Fisheries Service's chief scientific adviser, Steven Murawski. "Even though we've made good progress, we haven't reached the goal post."
The Senate-passed bill, written by one of the act's original authors, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), would require the councils to adhere to scientifically determined catch limits and to reduce future catches anytime industry exceeds the quotas.
Stevens, who said in an interview that Alaska's fisheries have thrived in part because the industry complies with scientists' recommendations, added that if other regions "accept scientific guidance, we'll end overfishing."
The House bill, by Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), which is slated for a floor vote in November, also calls for limits based on the "allowed biological catch" calculated by scientists. But it would allow overfishing to continue for two years under rebuilding plans, and it might extend the current 10-year deadline for replenishing depleted stocks in some instances to ensure a fishing community's infrastructure remains viable.
Sarah Chasis, who directs the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council's ocean initiative, called these provisions "conservation rollbacks" that will hurt fishermen in the long run. "If you rebuild these stocks in a timely way, the net economic value is really significant," she said.
But Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who represents New Bedford and worked with Pombo on the bill, considers even a 10-year rebuilding timetable arbitrary. In some instances, he said, more modest catch reductions over a longer time period could preserve local jobs and allow stocks to rebound eventually.
"We're not talking about permanent damage to the air or water," Frank said. "We're talking about an extension of overfishing. That's possible."
New Bedford's fishermen acknowledge that they have depleted some of their most valuable stocks, including the once-teeming species that gave nearby Cape Cod its name, and that fishery closures have helped some species rebound.
In the mid-1990s, federal officials closed one-third of Georges Bank, east of Cape Cod, to give scallops and groundfish such as haddock a chance to recover. Scallops did so dramatically -- a scallop boat can now scoop up $120,000 worth in two trips -- and haddock is also back. But the cod, which is more mobile and has a different life span, has yet to recover.
David Harrington switched from being a scalloper to being a ship engine mechanic more than a decade ago when regulators began to impose scientific standards on the fishery; now he thinks he may have acted too hastily. "I thought they were going to ruin it, and you know, they did a great job," he said.
But many local fishermen remain dissatisfied with federal managers, saying they open and close fishing areas without sufficient notice. "You're nervous when you're going out that you're in the wrong place," said Tom Manley, who has been fishing for scallops since he graduated from high school 28 years ago. "They need to listen to the fishermen more."
Some Massachusetts fishermen say attitudes toward conservation are shifting. John W. Pappalardo, who was elected chairman of the New England regional council last week, fished for cod until "there really weren't any left." He noted that with fishermen's support, the council approved rules for herring that bar "pair trawling," in which two ships tow a net between them and scoop up massive catches.
"It's not like a light switch, where we used to be in darkness and now we're illuminated," said Pappalardo, who is based in Chatham, Mass. "It took us many years to screw things up, and it's going to take a few years to unravel things."