Long awaited Final Rule, properly implemented , could protect key fish habitats according to Conservationists, Scientists and Fishermen. Jan. 17, 2002, 9:30a.m.Today, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) published its final rule implementing the essential fish habitat (EFH) mandates of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996. EFH are those waters and substrates on which fish are dependent to reach maturity and reproduce. Some examples of EFH are mangroves, coral reefs and wetlands. The rule provides guidance on how to identify EFH, establishes a coordination process for NMFS to work with other agencies to protect necessary fish habitats and provides guidelines for fisheries councils to incorporate habitat protection into fisheries management plans. Since December of 1997, an interim rule has been in effect that has allowed NMFS to save sandbank habitats important to sharks in Delaware and to modify an excavation project along an oil and gas well in Texas to reduce the impact on white shrimp, brown shrimp and red drum habitats. ''NMFS has made an important step in implementing the mandates of the Sustainable Fisheries Act,'' said Lee Crockett, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, ''Now that the rules are final, the federal government has the tools to protect important fish habitats with no uncertainty about the future of the regulations.'' This rule has been opposed by a coalition of developers, home builders, and timber interests who earlier in the week won a major victory when the Army Corps of Engineers modified its wetland protection rules making it easier to qualify for general permits to dredge and fill wetlands. This coalition tried to weaken the EFH regulations by limiting the areas and activities to which the rule applies. Sarah Chasis, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, stated that: ''You cannot protect and restore healthy fish populations without protecting the coastal and marine habitats upon which they depend. This rule is a step forward in providing that protection.'' Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, agrees that it is time for the rule to become permanent, ''For 25 years, west coast fishermen have been clamoring for fish habitat protection. Now after five years, numerous revisions and 270 days of public comments, NMFS has taken every effort to involve everyone affected by their decision and have made a fair rule that will help protect fish habitats.''