Compass: Stevens worked hard to protect fish resources

As director of the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute in Juneau, I'm here to say there could be no more appropriate namesake for a federal fisheries research facility than the late Sen. Ted Stevens. His Senate record (from 1968 to 2009) leaves no doubt that Stevens' vision and tenacity are largely responsible for the laws and government institutions that secure the economic, environmental and cultural future of our nation's oceans.

Let us never forget the bad old days of 1968 when foreign fishing fleets overexploited marine resources on the high seas right up to three miles off the coast of the U.S. Many people worked diligently in the post-WWII era to make international agreements to reduce the effects of high-seas fishing. Yet, by 1968, most waters off Alaska were still wide open to the fish-killing foreign fleets.

Those fleets stalked Alaska's salmon, fishing an estimated 10,000 kilometers of gill net in the western Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. One of the darkest periods for salmon occurred in 1973, when the mighty Bristol Bay sockeye return was just 2.4 million fish, including an inshore catch of only 761,000. In Bristol Bay today, a sockeye catch of about 15 million, like this year, is considered small. In 1973 it was clearly time to do something, but what could be done without international agreements?

Stevens had the clarity of vision to identify a unilateral 200-mile fishing limit as the means to control the foreign fishing fleets. He first introduced a bill in 1971. Although initially unsuccessful, in 1975 Stevens teamed with Washington Sen. Warren Magnuson to pass the Fishery Conservation and Management Act, now the Magnuson-Stevens Act, in 1976.

The Act of 1976 was a big step from the uncontrolled, damaging exploitation of the first three postwar decades to the carefully controlled, sustainable harvests of today. Over the next three decades, Stevens relentlessly pursued the creation of Alaska's modern commercial fisheries, known worldwide as the prime example of well-managed fisheries and best-protected living marine resources.

By the end of the senator's legislative career, Alaska's commercial fisheries had become a special, perhaps unique, public-private partnership in which the entrepreneurial expertise of the nation's fishing industries is enabled by federal-state regulation.

The partnership is certainly building wealth in Alaska for the nation. Alaska topped all other states in both weight of fish landed (5.4 billion pounds) and the value of those fish ($1.9 billion) in the most recent statistical year (2011).

The regulatory framework also protects marine ecosystems. For example, in 2009 the North Pacific Fishery Management Council closed the waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas between three and 200 miles offshore to all fishing, citing the need to acquire the information necessary to prevent overfishing and protect the health of the entire marine ecosystem before any federal fisheries could be conducted. It is the Magnuson-Stevens Act, not climate change, not better science, that is responsible for our fisheries wealth today. On every Ted Stevens Day, we should remember him as a leader among the many who worked so hard, and those still working hard, to protect and nurture our living marine resources and domestic fishing industries.

Phil Mundy has worked as a fisheries scientist in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska since earning his Ph.D. in fisheries at the University of Washington. He is director of the NOAA Fisheries' Auke Bay Laboratories, headquartered in the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute in Juneau. The opinions expressed here are solely his.