By Cat Lazaroff
SAN FRANCISCO, California, April 19, 2002 (ENS) - The National Marine Fisheries Service violated laws requiring protection of Pacific groundfish, a federal judge has ruled. Siding with environmental and fishing groups, the judge ruled that the federal agency failed to address the problem of bycatch: the accidental catching and killing of non-targeted fish and other species, such as sea turtles and birds.
U.S. Magistrate Judge James Larson ordered the fisheries agency (NMFS) to revise its fishery management plan to comply with federal fisheries laws.
In 1996, Congress enacted the federal Sustainable Fisheries Act, amending the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, in order to prevent overfishing and rebuild the nation's fish stocks. The Sustainable Fisheries Act required that fisheries managers take steps to reduce bycatch, among other things.
In his opinion, Larson wrote that, "Defendants' failure to minimize bycatch and bycatch mortality is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law." The judge's opinion criticized NMFS' failure to require observers onboard fishing boats, even though the agency had admitted that was the only way to adequately assess the amount and type of bycatch.
"Under this ruling, NMFS can no longer claim that it doesn't have enough information to act to protect the Pacific groundfish," said Sylvia Liu, attorney at Oceana, which served as co-counsel in the case. "On the contrary, the court has made clear that the law requires the government to collect information on bycatch in order to address the problem."
NMFS is responsible for managing the 82 fish species that make up the Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery. Stocks of many groundfish have plummeted in recent decades, a problem that conservation groups blame on overfishing and wasteful fishing practices.
Bycatch is a serious problem for depleted species of groundfish off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington, where most are caught by accident by commercial trawling vessels. Trawlers drag huge, heavy nets across the bottom of the ocean, tearing up the ocean floor and sweeping up any fish in its path.
Groundfish species that are not specifically sought by the trawlers are discarded when the nets are hauled in. Most of these groundfish are dead or dying when they are thrown back into the sea.
Since 1999, NMFS has been forced to declare nine different species of Pacific groundfish to be overfished, out of 16 species it has studied so far. For example, bocaccio, one of several rockfish species sold at fish markets and served at restaurants as Pacific red snapper, have declined by 98 percent since 1969.
Last year, NRDC and other environmental groups petitioned the Commerce Department to list bocaccio as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act. The outcome of that petition is pending.
This is the third suit in the past year that conservation groups have won by charging NMFS with mismanaging the Pacific groundfish fishery. In August 2001, Judge Larson ruled that NMFS had failed to make adequate allowance for bycatch mortality in setting fishing harvest levels for Pacific groundfish.
At the same time, Larson ruled that NMFS had violated requirements for rebuilding plans for overfished groundfish species.
"The Pacific groundfish fishery is collapsing, and the federal government is failing to protect these important and valuable fish," said Drew Caputo of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the lead lawyer for plaintiffs in the case. "Fish populations are shrinking, yet tons of dead fish are being thrown overboard. It's time for NMFS to take strong, responsible action to stop this wasteful practice before it's too late."
"The solution is clear and urgent: count the fish we unintentionally kill and make measurable progress in reducing the waste of these wild animals," added Peter Huhtala, program director with the Pacific Marine Conservation Council, Inc. "Solving this problem is central to sustaining our fisheries and the coastal communities that depend upon fishing."
Bycatch is not the only problem associated with bottom trawling. Last month, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report concluding that bottom trawling is damaging to marine habitats and contributes to declining fish populations.
The panel responsible for the report recommended that the government close some areas to all trawlers, and limit trawler access to other regions.
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