Environmentalists Win Suit to Protect Pacific Rockfish

Government Ordered to Reassess Fishing Limits for Dwindling Species

SAN FRANCISCO (August 22, 2001) - In a major victory for environmentalists, a federal judge has ruled that the government must take action to protect Pacific rockfish and other groundfish. The judge ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to reassess catch limits for two badly overfished species, bocaccio and lingcod.

"This is a huge victory for Pacific rockfish and for protecting the Pacific Ocean," said Drew Caputo, a senior attorney with NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. "Many Pacific rockfish are in serious trouble. This court decision requires the federal government to get serious about protecting them."

U.S. Magistrate Judge James Larson of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California agreed with environmentalists' claim that NMFS has failed to adequately account for bycatch -- the unintentional catching and discarding of untargeted fish. His opinion stated that "NMFS has not observed its duty to obtain accurate bycatch data. Nor has the agency bothered to explain its decision to ignore these factors and not adjust bocaccio and lingcod bycatch percentages in the face of evidence that it should." Most rockfish discarded in this manner are dead when discarded or die shortly afterward. The environmentalists argued that by underestimating the amount of bycatch, NMFS has been setting catch levels for rockfish that are too high.

"Discarding fish is a wasteful practice that threatens the recovery of depleted species," said Mark Powell, Pacific fish conservation manager for The Ocean Conservancy. "The court order forces managers to count the dead fish, which is the first step in responsible management."

NMFS, a branch of the U.S. Commerce Department, 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 seven 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. On January 25, 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.

Peter Huhtala, Campaign Coordinator for Pacific Marine Conservation Council (PMCC), said, "This ruling is part of the solution to the West Coast fisheries crisis. This can help managers make positive changes leading towards sustainable fishing now and in the future."

"Oceana is pleased that the court has ordered the federal government to take responsibility for keeping track of bycatch," said Eric Bilsky of Oceana. "This opinion has nationwide implications -- the government's failure to collect data and minimize bycatch has harmed fisheries across the country. Oceana expects the government to reform its fishery regulations to live up to its obligations to collect data and prevent overfishing."

In addressing the environmentalists' challenge to NMFS management of the Pacific groundfish fishery, the judge also ruled that the agency:

  • Violated federal laws by not providing prior public notice or allowing for comment on the 2001 rules for the fishery;
  • Authorized inadequate rebuilding plans for overfished species; and
  • Failed to consider a reasonable range of alternatives and environmental consequences in setting rules for catching bocaccio and lingcod groundfish.

The suit, Natural Resources Defense Council v. Evans (Case Nos. C 01-0421 JL and C 01-0637 JL), was filed by NRDC, Pacific Marine Conservation Council 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.

Through science-based advocacy, research, and public education, The Ocean Conservancy informs, inspires, and empowers people to speak and act for the oceans in order to protect ocean ecosystems and conserve the global abundance and diversity of marine wildlife. Headquartered in Washington, DC, The Ocean Conservancy has regional offices in Alaska, California, Florida, and New England and field offices in Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz, CA, Florida Keys, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the office of Pollution Prevention and Monitoring in Virginia Beach, VA. See www.oceanconservancy.org.

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

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