Conservation Groups Win Appeal in Challenge to Government Fishing Plan

SAN FRANCISCO (August 24, 2005) -- In a victory for conservation groups, a federal appeals court today ruled that the federal government must increase protections for severely depleted Pacific groundfish until the fishery recovers. The decision reversed a lower court ruling that increased fishing was permissible despite the fishery's precarious state.

Conservation groups sued over a decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to increase the fishing quota for darkblotched rockfish, an overfished species, by nearly 30 percent. The agency's decision came after it learned that the species was overfished much more severely than previously thought. In its ruling today, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called "patently unreasonable" NMFS's decision to allow increased fishing of a species it had just learned to be in worse condition.

"The court recognized that severely overfished species like darkblotched rockfish need immediate protection before they are pushed beyond the point of no return," said Drew Caputo, a senior attorney with NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). "The government has to act strongly to protect and restore overfished species, so they're around for our children and our children's children."

The government argued that since it was impossible to restore the darkblotched within 10 years, the agency could take decades to rebuild the population and catch more of the depleted fish in the meantime. The conservation groups said the agency's reasoning was based on a narrow, illogical interpretation of federal law. The court joined the plaintiffs, NRDC and Oceana, in rejecting the agency's arguments, calling NMFS's interpretation of the federal fisheries law "manifestly unreasonable."

In its 18-page decision the court wrote, "Plainly, the [law] does not contemplate that the Agency grant the least protection to the fish species in the worst shape." The court noted that strong protections for depleted fisheries benefit fishing communities as well as fish, since fishermen depend on healthy fish populations for their economic survival. "Without immediate efforts at rebuilding depleted fisheries, the very long-term survival of those fishing communities is in doubt," the court wrote.

"The court's decision is a win-win-win for fish, fishermen and consumers," said Janis Searles, senior counsel for Oceana. "The agency's short-sighted actions would have allowed fishing at unsustainable rates for the short-term, and resulted in fishery crashes in the long-term. The court recognized that we cannot sacrifice the health of our oceans for short-term economic considerations."

Darkblotched rockfish is one of 82 species of Pacific groundfish managed by NMFS as part of the Pacific groundfish fishery. The government has declared seven other rockfish species to be overfished, meaning that their populations have fallen below 25 percent of historic levels. The government suspects that many other Pacific groundfish species also are overfished, but it does not have sufficient data to make that determination. Rockfish are commonly sold in stores and restaurants as "Pacific red snapper" or "rock cod."

The case is Natural Resources Defense Council v. National Marine Fisheries Service, No. 03-16842 (9th Cir. Aug. 24, 2005).