Conservationists Ask Court to Protect Georges Bank Cod and Other New England Groundfish

NEW YORK (May 26, 2004) - Citing a continued threat to Georges Bank Cod and several other critical groundfish stocks, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) today asked Judge Gladys Kessler of the federal district court in Washington, D.C., to review New England's new management plan for groundfish, known as Amendment 13. Amendment 13 was approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to meet the requirements of a prior order by Judge Kessler and to comply with the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act. The new plan, which went into effect May 1, 2004, manages 12 species, including cod, haddock, yellowtail flounder and other types of groundfish.

In their complaint, NRDC and CLF allege that Amendment 13 does not comply with the overfishing, rebuilding or bycatch requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The groups' main concern is that Amendment 13 authorizes continued overfishing of Georges Bank Cod and four other significantly depleted groundfish stocks (American plaice, southern New England-Mid-Atlantic yellowtail flounder, white hake and Cape Cod-Gulf of Maine yellowtail flounder).

Once New England's signature fish species, Georges Bank cod is at less than 15 percent of healthy population levels and has shown almost no signs of recovery from the record low numbers of the mid-1990s. Amendment 13, however, allows fishing on Georges Bank cod and other species far above levels that Judge Kessler has already determined are impermissible and above rates recommended by NMFS' own scientists. In Canada, widespread overfishing has led to the collapse of the legendary cod stocks of Newfoundland and Labrador and the imposition of a moratorium on cod fishing.

The groups also are concerned that the measures in Amendment 13 will not achieve their stated goals for reducing fishing. For example, NMFS fails to explain how the plan will achieve a more than 50 percent cut in Georges Bank cod fishing mortality (from 2002 levels) by relying principally on what appears to be, at best, a 20 percent cut in the amount of time vessels can spend fishing.

In addition, the court filing asserts that Amendment 13 fails to include a standardized reporting methodology for assessing the amount and type of bycatch occurring in the New England groundfish fishery, another requirement of the Magnuson Stevens Act that was reinforced by Judge Kessler's prior order. Bycatch is the unintentional catch and discarding of fish and other marine species.

Sensitive to industry's concerns that a legal challenge may result in immediate and unanticipated changes in management, NRDC and CLF are requesting, among other things, that the federal court enter an order requiring NMFS to develop and implement the necessary improvements by May 1, 2005.