Environmentalists Win Suit to Protect Pacific Groundfish

Government Ordered to Stop Wasteful Discard of Dead and Dying Fish

SAN FRANCISCO (April 16, 2002) -- A federal judge has agreed with environmental and fishing groups that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) violated laws requiring protection of Pacific groundfish. The judge ruled that the federal agency failed to address the problem of bycatch, which occurs when fish are discarded at sea. He ordered the agency to revise its fishery management plan to comply with the law.

Bycatch is a particularly serious problem for depleted species of groundfish off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington because most groundfish are dead or dying when discarded. Since 1999, NMFS has been forced to declare nine different species of Pacific groundfish to be overfished.

"The Pacific groundfish fishery is collapsing, and the federal government is failing to protect these important and valuable fish," said Drew Caputo of NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), 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."

"Wasteful bycatch has been an accepted part of fishing for far too long," said Mark Powell of The Ocean Conservancy. "It's time to stop this unacceptable and illegal waste of public resources."

In his opinion, U.S. Magistrate Judge James Larson of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that, "Defendants' failure to minimize bycatch and bycatch mortality is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law." The opinion was especially critical of 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, as required by law.

"The solution is clear and urgent: count the fish we unintentionally kill and make measurable progress in reducing the waste of these wild animals," said Peter Huhtala, program director with PMCC. "Solving this problem is central to sustaining our fisheries and the coastal communities that depend upon fishing."

"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 this 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."

This is the third suit in the past year that the plaintiffs groups have won charging the agency, a branch of the U.S. Commerce Department, 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, he ruled that NMFS had violated requirements for rebuilding plans for overfished groundfish species. NMFS is responsible for managing 82 fish species that constitute the Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery. Stocks of many groundfish have declined precipitously in recent decades, largely due to overfishing.

Since 1999, NFMS has been forced to declare as overfished nine of the 16 groundfish species that 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.

The latest suit, Pacific Marine Conservation Council, Inc., et al. v. Donald Evans, et al. (Case No. C 01-2506 JL), was filed by Pacific Marine Conservation Council, NRDC and The Ocean Conservancy. The plaintiffs were represented by NRDC and Oceana.

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.

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.

Pacific Marine Conservation Council is a nonprofit, public benefit corporation, providing support for conservation and fishing communities in Washington, Oregon and California.

Oceana is an international advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and conserving the world's oceans, the source of life.

Related NRDC Pages

August 22, 2001, Environmentalists Win Suit to Protect Pacific Rockfish