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Fish catch quota first of many small, but necessary, steps

Some 60 years ago now, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe put a great idea into action. Their formerly communal lands had been allotted, and the allotted acres had already begun to ''fractionate'' among the heirs of successive generations. The tribe understood that fractionation would get worse, until it ultimately crippled the economic value of many land parcels by dividing them among multiple-ownership shares. An increasing number of people would bring about a decrease in economically viable land unless something could be done. So in an effort to consolidate ownership, the tribe established its groundbreaking Tribal Land Enterprise program, making it possible for landholders to swap certificates of interest in land. By swapping interests, landowners would be able to consolidate land and make their own decisions about it, instead of consulting dozens of other owners about what to do with scattered land tracts.

Tribal Land Enterprise has had its ups and downs at Rosebud. But overall it has functioned well enough to consolidate some lands, on a large and impoverished reservation, to the point where some owners - and the tribe itself - can realize an economic return from their lands.

But in the meantime, fractionation on other reservations has accelerated. Land fractionation, the division of ownership interests among the heirs of each successive generation, is now acknowledged to be one of the leading problems in Indian country. It is a check on economic interests throughout Indian country, and managing it costs the federal government untold millions in more or less unproductive spending every year.

Yet there was a solution at hand 60 years ago. If the government, as the trustee of tribal lands, had tried to implement the TLE approach elsewhere, the effects of fractionation would be much less injurious now. Who is to say that other tribes, stirred by the TLE approach to consider the sources of poverty on reservations, might not have come up with answers to fractionation that would have been an advance upon the Rosebud model? Instead, the federal government has only just begun to think of taking up the Rosebud model. But elsewhere in Indian country, land fractionation has already done a great deal of the damage Rosebud sought to mitigate.

All of this is certainly the long way around to a commentary on fish, but such were the thoughts that came to mind with news that Congress has taken an astonishing first step toward preserving the planet's fisheries. As with Indian land fractionation, the dwindling of a once-mighty resource over generations has left too few fish among too many people. Estimates are that approximately one in six of the planet's people rely on fish as their main source of protein; yet many of the world's fisheries are depleted. For instance, the Unites States, with more ocean waters as its territory than any other nation, presides over fisheries that are one-fourth depleted overall, as a direct result of overfishing. In numerous separate fisheries, of course, the depletion is much steeper.

But in both Iceland and Alaska, a system of quota sharing in ocean fisheries has arisen that echoes the system at landlocked Rosebud. In Alaska, a so-called ''cap-and-trade'' system - limiting the catch, trading the quotas - has helped make the state's fishery the largest and most profitable in the nation. And in Iceland, the cap-and-trade approach has been the salvation of the national fishing industry.

In overhauling the old Magnuson-Stevens Act, Congress has now given the go-ahead to oceanwide cap-and-trade fisheries programs. A cap-and-trade fishery works like this: Fish caps and quotas are established according to the lights of science, and the quotas are bought and sold according to their market value in that particular fishery. Without a viable fishery, the quotas are worth less, or even worthless; so everyone has an economic incentive (as well as a legal obligation) not to overfish. Commercial fishers who want more fish must buy up quotas within a region to meet their short-term need for supply; fishermen who need less can sell their shares within a region to meet their short-term need for cash. Environmental organizations can purchase quotas and put them on the shelf, essentially enabling fish stock to regenerate over time. As at Rosebud, the underlying asset can be swapped according to the economic interest of shareholders.

As long as two requirements are met, the oceans will not be overfished. One, the caps and quotas must be established according to the best available science. Two, no party can exceed its catch limit.

The new law on fisheries meets the first test - the federally empowered regional fishing councils must now, by law, be guided by science in their decisions, rather than by the political pressures applied by the many interest groups that swim these waters. And once a stock is declared overfished, the councils must implement a plan to restore it within two years.

On the second necessity, Congress must finish its work. The new law does not exact accountability from fisheries managers that permit overfishing - defined as a catch in excess of quota limits. Perhaps the new arrangements will prove self-regulating, with everyone so respecting the overriding value of the asset that no quota-enforcement powers will be needed. But given the human track record, Congress would be wise to mandate stiff penalties for any and all parties to overfishing a quota.

The law, passed as the last Congress was headed out the door, has other excellent features. It hopes to reduce fish piracy by foreign deep-sea fleets, and it takes a serious first step toward the protection of coral ecosystems (threatened by bottom-trawlers that drag immense and damaging nets across ocean floors - something to think about the next time you reach for shrimp).

The new fisheries law, together with the many emergent initiatives in Congress against global warming and President Bush's protection, last year, of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and their irreplaceable offshore corals ... it's all enough to make us wonder if the United States is getting serious about the environment. If so, the sign will be that these initiatives not only work, but work together on all fronts - from the oceans to the polar ice caps, from the rain forests to the cornfields to the showroom floor at the local auto dealer.

Without a broad approach, continuing effort and enforceable laws, the fisheries initiative will amount to one isolated good idea, like the kind they had at Rosebud some 60 years ago: holding its own in one place while desolation runs circles around it.