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Feds' fish panel puts communities at risk

As mayor of a community that relies upon healthy fisheries to sustain our economy and city services, I find the prospect of a centralized ocean policy that restricts the autonomy of our Regional Fishery Management Councils to be troubling.

For over a year, the Obama administration has been in the process of developing a National Ocean Policy process that appears to reduce the autonomy and authority of our regional councils. This significant shift from a regional council with considerable public input to a massive federal panel that largely excludes the public is being sold as a necessary change to enhance the conservation of our marine resources while coordinating activities that take place at sea. Yet, after spending significant time and resources, officials are still unable to address basic concerns of our commercial fisheries and fishing-dependent communities.

Unalaska/Dutch Harbor has been the most prolific fishing port in the nation for 22 years running. The large scale of our fishing activity and the community's financial stability speaks volumes about the current regional fishery management process and its success, and indicates the current system is working.

In 1976, Washington Sen. Warren Magnuson and Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens extended the U.S. ocean boundary from 3 to 200 miles, establishing the Regional Fishery Management Council system in the process. Today, the Magnuson-Stevens Act remains a successful model of fisheries policy; its provisions allow the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) to develop and establish policies that have enabled Alaska coastal communities like mine to benefit greatly over the past 10 years.

Since its establishment, the NPFMC has been a complex mix of local stakeholders and regional participants, each council member bringing their particular area of expertise and interest to the table for a thorough discussion of policy before a knowledgeable and passionate public. The most recent NOAA Fisheries Report to Congress reflects the NPFMC's successful management of the fisheries under their watch. We have the best record in the nation of avoiding overfishing and our system has become a model for successful fisheries management around the world. Hard lessons have been learned along the way, but they have been learned, and our fisheries-dependent communities are better off because of it.

The benefits of a regional management system to coastal communities throughout the Aleutians are undeniable. The fisheries management system includes Alaska community representatives, fishermen, conservationists, enforcement, businessmen, CDQ partners, and representatives from Alaska, Washington, Oregon and NMFS. This regional approach to fisheries management has proven quite successful. Unfortunately, the National Ocean Policy appears aimed at restricting this system in favor of one where decisions are made by Outside bureaucrats unfamiliar with Alaska communities, commercial fishing and the unique challenges faced by municipal officials who depend on stable revenues for stable communities.

Revenues directly generated by fisheries are vital to our ability to fund city services and projects. They are used to fund school budgets, senior citizen lunch programs, road repairs and nonprofits that provide for the health and safety of our most vulnerable citizens. They provide funding for after-school programs, emergency towing systems and public safety. The public involvement that is a significant element of the NPFMC process allows for small communities like mine to weigh in on matters that affect our very survival, and the regional council listens and understands legitimate concerns while crafting responsible policy.

Without prudent and reasonable fishery policies designed by the NPFMC that rely heavily on stakeholder involvement, I strongly question whether we would have a sustainable economy to support our community of more than 4,300 residents and our many small local businesses.

That Unalaska is home to the No. 1 fishing port in the nation for 22 years is a testament to the success of our current regional fishery management process. To suggest that the current process should be replaced by a top-heavy bureaucracy with limited public involvement is to ignore these successes and puts communities like mine at risk. Let us maintain our current, successful fishery management system. Indeed, our survival may depend on it.

Shirley Marquardt is mayor of Unalaska. She has wide experience in the fishing industry and is the incoming 2012 president of the Alaska Municipal League. Email,