Out of (executive) order

A government of laws, we're taught, not of men.

But that's not true: In late October, one man, President George W. Bush, essentially dismissed the Magnuson Act, to say nothing of the U.S. commercial fishing industry.

He did this by means of an executive order prohibiting the sale of redfish and striped bass caught in federal waters.

Bush made it clear that he'd like the states to follow suit and ban commercial harvests of the species in their waters.

"One such way," he said, "is to use the state designation of gamefish where appropriate."

It is not clear to me how the federal ban will come to pass, because the president has directed the departments of Commerce and the Interior to work with the regional fishery management councils in its implementation. And under Magnuson, the councils are obliged to allocate fish and the pain of conserving them equally.

But what is clear to me is that Bush has little regard for the tens of thousands of commercial fishermen in this country, their families or their communities.

He is apparently unfamiliar with the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which at the very least equates sport and commercial fisheries, which "contribute to the food supply, economy, and health of the Nation and provide recreational opportunities."

And he needs someone in fishery management to explain to him that we conserve fish by limiting harvests, not by manipulating allocations.

Every bit as alarming as the specifics of the order are the insights into the Bush mind-set.

"Listen," he told an audience at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael's, Md., "it's important to be a commercial fisherman; I understand that." But, he said, "It's important to recognize here in America that sportfishing is an important industry. A lot of people make a living because of sportfishing."

Nor will you find it reassuring that our president likes the gamefish designation because it "removes the incentive to catch the fish for anything other than recreational purposes."

Here are Bush's thoughts on the 140,000-square-mile marine conservation area in the Hawaiian Islands. "A lot of the nets we're picking up out of that beautiful sanctuary in... Hawaii... wash ashore because some trawler decides they don't want to mend the net or store the net or take care of the net — they just cut it and let her go, and the currents wash all that stuff ashore.

"We literally pulled out tons of material off these islands."

This is a charge I have not heard from the industry's most vociferous critics — though I'm sure we will soon.

Bob Jones of the Southeastern Fisheries Association said the Bush announcement, which came Oct. 21, marked "a sad day for the rule of law."

It is all of that, and more. It is an edict from the president of the United States that proclaims to all that one user is more deserving of access to marine resources than another.

It will be tempting for some of you to rationalize that ill fortune befalling another man's fishery couldn't possibly befall yours.

"Who'd want to catch a whiting" — or a crab or a skate or whatever — "on a hook?" you'll tell yourself.

But it's not so much the elevation of the recreational fishermen that's so frightening. It's the relegation of commercial fishermen to the status of second-class citizen that worries me. Who knows who'll displace you?

I can hear some of you now; "The commercial fisherman has always been a second-class citizen."

Well, now it's the law.

And if you think it will begin and end with striped bass and redfish, you're sipping something our president wouldn't touch.

— Jerry Fraser

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