WASHINGTON (AP) -- As the federal moratorium on fishing quotas expires Monday after six years, fishermen, conservationists, processors and others are waiting to see if Congress will extend it.
If it isn't extended, the eight regional fishery management councils will be free to enact quota programs, divvying up catches of one or more species among fishermen.
Such programs would be subject to approval by the U.S. Department of Commerce, and it would take months, if not longer, to get them into place if the moratorium is allowed to expired.
The last time it expired, in 2000, Congress acted at the very end of the year to extend it for another two years.
For now, it's unclear what Congress will do.
Lawmakers are trying to reach consensus on guidelines for the regional councils to follow in enacting quota programs. For instance, the councils could be required to ensure that quotas don't lead to too much industry that drives out smaller fishermen.
''It's going to force the industrialization of the fleet, which is what we're afraid of,'' said Vito Giacalone of Gloucester, Mass., who fishes for groundfish.
Beyond that, it would be difficult to fairly divide catches in New England based on recent harvests -- a common benchmark -- because so many fishermen have caught less in recent years than they have historically due to conservation restrictions, he said.
In New England, most experts point to the herring and red crab fisheries as two that are best-suited for quotas, because of fairly homogenous fleets and healthy conditions.
Under quota programs, caps are generally placed on a fishery's total allowable catch, and that total is then allocated to fishermen through percentage shares. Those shares typically can be transferred, so that fishermen who want to catch more can buy additional shares from others, who may wish to sell their shares and retire.
Such systems are used in about 60 fisheries worldwide, and in three federally controlled U.S. fisheries, where they pre-date the 1996 moratorium: Alaskan halibut and sable fish; mid-Atlantic surf clam and ocean quahog; and southeastern wreckfish.
Those who favor quotas say they will help elimininate the race for fish that now characterizes some fisheries, where harvesters race for as much as they can get before the season ends or total catch limits are reached.
With the security of quotas, the argument goes, fishermen are less inclined to go into sensitive ecological areas or to discard and kill large numbers of fish, marine mammals and birds that are unintentionally caught.
Quotas are ''a different approach,'' said Dorothy Childers, director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, which includes residents of coastal communities. ''Everyone knows what they can get. They're not in such a rush.''
Richard Allen, a lobster fishermen off Point Judith, R.I., whose business is not likely to be affected by quotas, argued that Congress should let the moratorium expire without imposing any additional conservation or economic measures to protect smaller producers.
The regional councils already take such factors into account in writing fisheries rules under the 1996 amendments to the Magnuson Act, the nation's major fishing law, he said.
''If you give them more hoops to jump through, it's just going to paralyze the system,'' he said. ''It's already paralyzed enough.''
One complicating factor is the separate, controversial question of whether Congress should allow processors quotas that guarantee them shares of fisheries.
In the North Pacific, the regional council has approved processor quotas for Alaskan crabs, but they can't take effect without congressional approval. Lawmakers who favor quotas for fishermen may come under pressure to approve processor quotas as well.
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