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Environmentalists Praise Federal Court Victory In New England Groundfish Lawsuit
WASHINGTON (January 3, 2002) -- Today, five environmental organizations announced a major litigation victory that will protect New England's ocean life from wasteful, destructive overfishing. On December 28, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), bowing to short-term commercial interests, defied Congress' mandate to conserve New England groundfish. The ruling completely upholds environmentalists' allegations that the NMFS failed to prevent overfishing and decrease bycatch in the New England groundfish fishery.
Five environmental advocacy groups praised the sweeping precedent-setting federal court decision.
"This ruling is a strong victory for the environmental protection principles of the Sustainable Fisheries Act and for all New England fish populations," said CLF Marine Project Director Priscilla Brooks. "The National Marine Fisheries Service has been caught in the act of ignoring the law including regulations that they themselves approved to manage New England's struggling groundfish. By doing so federal fishery managers have put the long-term recovery of New England groundfish populations at risk along with the economic viability of New England's fishing communities."
"The failure of the National Marine Fisheries Service to manage bycatch in the New England groundfish fishery has contributed significantly to the plight of groundfish stocks for years", stated Brad Sewell, senior project attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This federal court ruling is unequivocal in its mandate to NMFS to take effective action to measure and minimize this wasteful practice."
"This victory sends a strong message to fishery mangers that business as usual in the New England fishery will not be tolerated," said John Phillips, The Ocean Conservancy's Regional Director. "Law, science, and common sense dictate that we maintain fish populations at healthy levels, yet, most of the assessed fish species in New England are overfished. Fishery managers must act now to accelerate the rebuilding of New England's groundfish stocks and ensure that other sea life caught in the process will no longer be disregarded."
"NMFS must now stop making excuses and take action to stop the overfishing of New England groundfish stocks as Congress mandated in the Sustainable Fisheries Act", said Marilyn Twitchell, an attorney with the National Audubon Society. "NMFS must also manage bycatch which has contributed to overfishing. The court's ruling will ensure that New England's beleaguered groundfish stocks are put back on track toward sustainability."
"This ruling brings to light the sad fact that federal fisheries regulation has been derailed by short-term commercial interests," said Oceana attorney Eric Bilsky. "It sends a message that ocean management must be based on sound science, not politics."BACKGROUND
In 1996, Congress enacted the federal Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA), amending the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, in order to prevent overfishing and rebuild the nation's fish stocks. The SFA required that by 1998 all regional fishery management councils including the New England Fishery Management Council, had to adopt stricter measures to control over-fishing of groundfish and reduce bycatch. The environmentalists' lawsuit charged that NMFS violated both of these requirements. The court quoted strong proponents of enacting the SFA to end the mismanagement of New England's fisheries, including Massachusetts' Senator Kerry and Representative Studds.
The lawsuit charged that groundfish catch levels, proposed by the New England Fishery Management Council and approved by NMFS, are too high and violate federal law by risking further depletion of New England groundfish populations. The court ruled in favor of the groups' on all counts, upholding their claim that by not taking action to stop overfishing and minimize bycatch as required by law, NMFS is jeopardizing the long-term ecological and economic health of the fishery.
The court found that as a result of years of overfishing "it is beyond dispute that the New England groundfish population has been severely depleted." The court held that the National Marine Fisheries Service is violating the federal Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA) of 1996 by failing to obey NMFS' own regulation, known as Amendment 9 to the Multispecies Fishery Management Plan, that mandates the use of overfishing standards in order to rebuild fish populations and prevent the continued overfishing of cod and other groundfish off the coast of New England.
The court also held that NMFS failed to meet SFA requirements to assess, report, and minimize bycatch in the fishery. Bycatch is the inadvertent and wasteful catch and discard of non-targeted fish. The Court stated that "[i]n short, the record shows that, after the SFA was enacted, [NMFS] adopted no measures to minimize bycatch and bycatch mortality in the groundfish fishery. Such an approach both ignores and frustrates the will of Congress."
The Court rejected NMFS' argument that the groups were not entitled to relief because NMFS would come into compliance by August 2003, at the earliest. The Court stated that "[g]iven their record of inaction and delay, [NMFS] have not carried their burden of showing that they will remedy their ongoing violations of the SFA." The court noted, for example, that NMFS initially refused to implement Amendment 9 in part because it did not want to conduct a legally required environmental impact statement, and that NMFS had a statutory duty to comply with the SFA by February 1999 yet it is nearly three years later and NMFS has still not complied with the statute.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by Oceana on behalf of the New England-based Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), and national environmental organizations Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the National Audubon Society (NAS) and The Ocean Conservancy. The complaint named as defendants the NMFS and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans. NMFS and NOAA are agencies within the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Founded in 1966, the Conservation Law Foundation is a nonprofit, member-supported organization that uses law, economics and science to design and implement strategies to conserve natural resources, protect public health, and promote vital communities in New England. It has regional advocacy centers in Boston; Montpelier, Vermont; Concord, New Hampshire; and Rockland, Maine.
Oceana, whose Ocean Law Project is lead counsel on this case, is a new non-profit, international advocacy organization created with the sole purpose of protecting the world's oceans to sustain the circle of life. Oceana brings together dedicated people from around the world, building an international movement to save the oceans through public policy advocacy, science and economics, legal action, grassroots mobilization, and public education.
The Ocean Conservancy is the largest national nonprofit organization committed solely to protecting ocean environments and conserving the global abundance and diversity of marine life. Through science-based advocacy, research, and public education, The Ocean Conservancy seeks to inform, inspire and empower people to speak and act for the oceans. Headquartered in Washington, DC with more than 900,000 members and volunteers, The Ocean Conservancy has regional offices in Alaska, California, Florida, and New England and field offices in Alaska, California, Florida and New England and field offices in Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz, CA, Florida Keys, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Founded in 1905 and supported by over 550,000 members in over 500 chapters throughout the Americas, the National Audubon Society conserves and restores natural ecosystems, focusing on birds and other wildlife for the benefit of humanity and the earth's biological diversity.
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