By Paul Mills
One of the most staggering consequences of this year’s BP Oil Spill is the depletion of fishing stock along the Gulf Coast and the resulting threat to the area’s fishing industry. This condition is reminiscent of a time some 40 years ago when seafood shortages around New England also threatened the viability of the industry here in Maine and elsewhere along US coastal waters. It is an occasion to return to the late ‘60s.
The Congressman from Maine’s 1st District, Peter Kyros, is flown out over the coast of Southern Maine. Within a few short moments, a mere dozen miles out, huge Russian and Polish “mother” factory ships are harvesting haddock, halibut, and cod, with overpowering efficiency. The highly mechanized, sophisticated foreign fishing fleets are exhausting the supply of fish beyond their capacity to regenerate.
Alarmed by this exploitation of his constituents’ interests, not to mention the threat to the entire American fishing industry and the global environment, Kyros joins with Congressional colleagues from other seaport cities to introduce a bill to extend from l2-miles to 200 the territory within which foreign fishing is regulated.
For years, however, the bill is locked up in committee. It goes nowhere.
The Department of Defense fears that if it were passed, reprisals from other nations could result in American military shipping being banned from the narrow straits of foreign countries. The State Department warns that unilateral action by the U.S. would violate Law of the Sea mandates. Powerful opposition also comes from America’s own tuna fishing interests who benefited by an increased tuna catch that resulted from tuna retreating closer to the domestic shoreline when foreign vessels were around.
Finally, by l974, spurred by the pressure of double digit inflation that arises in part from the scarcity of seafood products coupled with what was then the worst recession since the Depression, Congressional leadership allows Kyros’s Fisheries Subcommittee to conduct l0 hearings in coastal seaports throughout the nation. Testimony elicited during the hearings arouse such concern about “foreign destruction of our fisheries,“ recalled Kyros in a recent interview with this columnist it gave the “whole 200-mile fishing bill momentum for passage,” which occurred in the next Congress.
To this day, it remains the law of the land. Its provisions allowing agreements for controlled and regulated shipping within the 200-mile limit by other nationals have helped allay the Defense and State Department misgivings about the possible overseas consequences to America’s own interests.
Though Kyros is quick to decline primary credit for the law – that he gives to the late GOP Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and to Washington’s Democratic Senator Warren Magnusson – his role in it is Kyros’ proudest accomplishment.
The “night and day” commitment to the cause that tore Kyros away to far corners for the country in l974 also cost Kyros time back in Maine. He so neglected his own election that the four term Democrat narrowly lost his seat to a 26-year old GOP challenger, David Emery.
Despite devotion to the 200-mile limit proposal, Kyros was by no means a one-issue lawmaker. The most intractable public policy dilemma of his time in Congress was the American role in Vietnam. Kyros’s perspective was against the backdrop of his seven-year stretch as an MIT- and Annapolis-trained naval officer during the Korean War era. His four tours of Vietnam while in Congress expanded on this insight. As with the country as a whole, Kyros’s position on the war evolved from one of initial support for White House policies to one of misgivings about them, even though he remained a strong protector of Maine’s military installations, then as now periodically under siege from the Defense Department.
Also captivating Kyros’s interest was his passion for health care legislation. As ranking member of the Public Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee his name appeared as a co-sponsor of many of the era’s leading health care proposals. Kyros was also by the early l970s an early advocate of a national health care system, though on a more modest scale than that enacted last year.
Upon leaving Congress, Kyros pursued similar interests by representing biomedical research scientists in successfully promoting funding for the National Institute of Health, or “NIH,” the nation’s leading fountainhead of grants for scientific and medical research. His skills as an advocate had been honed not only by his eight years in Congress but also through his earlier experiences in Portland as a trial attorney and at Harvard’s law school.
Concerns about international fishing also continued to command Kyros’s attention when by l980 under Edmund Muskie, Kyros became the State Department’s liaison to Congress on trade and shipping issues, a post he left in l982.
Now 85, Kyros still puts in a few hours each day at the D.C. based office of a private consulting firm. He also is a professional lecturer to retired federal workers on how to testify before Congressional committees. Indeed, the verbal dexterity that once made him one of the more fluent and articulate speakers in Maine remains a hallmark of his persona.
His speech, for example, is still one of the most time-compressed of any public figure I’ve ever covered. In my most recent encounter with him last month, it was still a high speed l88-words per minute. This was a mere six word-per-minute slow down from the rate he exhibited in a l973 TV interview I had with him when he was a 48-year old member of Congress.
It is thus easy to understand how this gifted leader still makes his mark, not only with his continued celebration of the 200-mile fishing limit but as an ongoing player in Washington today as well.