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Fishing industry summit looms large for LI

The debate over how best to manage coastal fisheries moves to the storied port of New Bedford, Mass., tomorrow as fishermen, environmentalists and government officials examine rules that have revived once-depleted species but also hurt a once-thriving fishing industry.

What's billed as a summit falls two weeks after a Washington, D.C., rally drew thousands of angry fishermen from around the country - including busloads from Long Island - and pledges of action from influential lawmakers.

The attendee list for the Northeast Fisheries Summit includes Eric Schwaab, the newly appointed assistant administrator for fisheries with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Schwaab has previously expressed a reluctance to weaken the Magnuson Stevens Act, which sets strict and fast-approaching timetables for rebuilding fish populations.

"Magnuson already contains the flexibility we need for rebuilding stocks by allowing certain exceptions based on biology and other issues," Schwaab said in a statement last month.

Fishermen want the timetables extended by as much as five years for fish populations such as fluke and scup that are clearly rebuilding, arguing that current rules would effectively close vital fisheries. The debate will be at the center of the summit.

Greenport commercial fisherman Mark Phillips said his message to Schwaab and others attending the summit is to pass legislation introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), that extends the rebuilding timetables and adds "flexibility" to the Magnuson act so fishermen can continue to fish. "We need the flexibility act," he said from his boat Friday.

While the rules are well intended, Schumer says, "We are erring on the side of caution so much we won't have an industry."

But environmentalists and scientists say the rules were badly needed for fish populations that were depleted from decades of overfishing and other factors.

And they say that even though many species have been rebuilt, the rules haven't had a chance to fully work, even if the science underlying the limits can be faulty.

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