Excessive federal regulation and environmental groups are threatening the nation’s recreational fishing industry, according to members of Congress backing a bill to protect of one America’s most popular leisure activities.

"The Freedom to Fish Act" would require the government to promote open access to fishing along and off the nation’s shorelines, and would include recreational fishermen in any regulatory procedures involving protected saltwater areas. The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and in the Senate by Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, and John Breaux, D-La.

Supporters said they are concerned the government is going to drive anglers out of the oceans, pulling the line on a $108 billion annual retail industry. They said restrictive federal regulations have already been instituted at the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, and are currently pending at the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary in California.

"This attempt to limit our access to public resources to fish has us concerned," said Forbes Darby, a spokesman for the American Sportfishing Association, which lobbied hard for the legislation. Darby said 2,700 jobs, $100 million in retail sales and $13 million in tax revenues would be lost if fishing were abolished from places like the Channel Islands, 22 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif.

"There are 50 million anglers out there and they’re getting really energized about this issue," Darby charged.

Environmentalists have countered that the amount of protected areas is miniscule compared to the millions of acres now open to fishermen.

"We think they’re shooting themselves in the foot," said Kate Wing, ocean policy analyst for the National Resource Defense Council. "Marine reserves are one of the only places that have been shown to bring back species of fish. There is no question that commercial fishing has caused damage, but in certain areas species have been hurt more by recreational fishing.

"I know it’s an emotional issue," she added. "We hope to spend time to educate people and get them involved so that they can understand and support it. These bills (Freedom to Fish Act) are in some ways, a knee-jerk reaction."

The Bush administration agrees for now, and has already directed its agencies to carry out the measures set forth in a May 2000 executive order by then-President Bill Clinton.

That order expanded the number of Marine Protected Areas in a bid to strengthen the conservation of ocean and coastal resources. Today, such MPAs include millions of acres of marine sanctuaries and fishery management zones, wildlife refuges and state reserves.

The move has mobilized federal agencies to work with environmental groups and localities to institute, in many cases, new restrictions on public use of these designated MPAs.

Officials close to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said there is concern that the order will be used to create national parks out of the ocean, which is under state or federal jurisdiction up to 200 miles off the U.S. coast in any direction.

While some reserves, like those off the coast of Alaska, have limited recreational fishing to certain species at certain times, critics fear environmentalists will be successful in cutting off all access.

"Marine anglers, no matter where they go, already have restrictions," said Darby. "It’s not a free-for-all once you get to these sanctuaries. Keeping everyone out is not going to solve the problem," he said.