Long-term Remedy Needed to Rebuild Collapsed New England Fishery
WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 19, 2002) -- Four conservation groups today requested that the United States District Court for the District of Columbia reject the NMFS' side agreement, filed Tuesday, because it would continue to allow overfishing of New England's valuable groundfish indefinitely. The side agreement would jeopardize the rebuilding of groundfish stocks, the environmentalists said, and threaten the fishery's sustainability. It provides no long-term commitment to rebuilding or short-term guarantee of effective mortality reductions, they said in a brief filed today with Judge Gladys Kessler. The agreement pursues the course of action the Court's ruling in December already rejected: allowing overfishing to continue until the defendants develop a new fishery management plan, Amendment 13, sometime in late 2003. The agreement does not require that Judge Kessler approve the new plan.
Ever since Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA) in 1996, fishery managers have been trying to rebuild New England groundfish populations. The brief describes how each year fishery managers have proposed limits on when, where, and how fisherman can fish. Yet each year they have weakened those management measures based on complaints from the fishing industry about economic hardship, and the viability of the industry. And each year some of New England's most important groundfish stocks have been overfished, and their rebuilding delayed.
"The side agreement, if enacted, would allow overfishing to continue and jeopardize the recovery of New England groundfish stocks," said Geoff Smith, New England Fish Conservation Program Manager at The Ocean Conservancy. When Congress amended the law in 1996, it made specific changes to stop overfishing, in large part due to the crisis in the New England groundfish fishery. "The court recognized that NMFS is violating this law by allowing continued overfishing."
Eric Bilsky, senior attorney for Oceana, who represents plaintiffs the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and The Ocean Conservancy, states, "The side agreement illegally perpetuates overfishing. Defendants' are playing a shell game -- creating a baseline for fishing days that is 20 percent higher than the average over the last five years -- then decreasing that inflated number by 20 percent, arriving right back where they started. The other measures contained in the side agreement are of dubious effectiveness. Worse, the side agreement provides for no measures to control fishing if the management measures turn out to be ineffective, which they almost certainly will be." The environmental groups noted that the measures in the side agreement are far weaker than those that had been proposed by the federal government over the last several months.
The most recent data indicates that New England groundfish are worse off than previously thought. Slight gains over the last few years have not made up for decades of overfishing. At least 12 of 18 New England fish populations that the U.S. monitors are overfished.
"It's unfortunate that, after all our efforts at discussion, we've ended up with just a proposal to continue business as usual. New England fish populations are down 70 percent from historical levels, while fishing effort has increased 300 percent. Clearly, business as usual is bankrupt," said Brad Sewell of the Natural Resource Defense Council.
"We believe there needs to be fundamental changes in the way the New England fishery is managed. For the past six years, managers have adopted regulations meant to control mortality and rebuild cod stocks, and for six years those measures have failed," said Marlyn Twitchell of the National Audubon Society.
As part of the plaintiffs' proposed remedy in the suit, the groups have asked the judge to 1) set catch levels based on the legally-applicable biological targets and rebuilding schedules, 2) implement specific and enforceable measures to assure these targets are not exceeded, 3) place observers on fishing vessels to monitor catch levels and wasteful bycatch, 4) and develop a specific plan to reduce wasteful bycatch. These measures will have some short-term effects on the fishing industry, but in the long run, they should restore fish populations, allowing higher harvests at sustainable levels.
The court filings of the other parties in this case indicate a desire to retain the status quo of overfishing and high levels of bycatch because of concerns about short-term economic impacts. This short-term focus has plagued New England fishery management for decades and threatens to prevent rebuilding entirely. The time is now to put rebuilding back on track so that New England can enjoy the economic and environmental benefits from sustainable fisheries, including more available and less expensive seafood. The government should only accept a remedy that will ensure that the long-term goal of rebuilding the region's fisheries.
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.
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. Oceana recently launched a national campaign, OceansAtRisk.com, and filed a formal petition to reduce fishery bycatch in all U.S. waters.
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 Maine and field offices in Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz, CA, the 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.