Federal Fisheries Service Denies Petition to Protect Imperiled Rockfish

Government Dismisses Science Showing that Popular Seafood Species is Threatened with Extinction, Say Environmental Groups

SAN FRANCISCO (November 14, 2002) -- The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has denied a petition by environmental groups to list a variety of Pacific red snapper as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. Environmentalists charged the federal agency with ignoring its own findings that the fish called "bocaccio" has declined at an alarming rate.

"The government's refusal to list bocaccio means this fish may go the way of other species hunted to extinction," said Karen Garrison, co-director of NRDC's (Natural Resources Defense Council) oceans initiative. "The fisheries service's own data show these fish have declined by 96 percent since 1969. The fish, fishermen and consumers all will suffer if we allow this ecologically and economically valuable fish to disappear forever."

The environmentalists petitioned to list the central/southern population of bocaccio -- which ranges from Northern California to Mexico -- based on numerous studies documenting its decline. Bocaccio once was the dominant species of rockfish caught by trawl fishermen on the Pacific coast. At the height of the fishery, over 7,000 metric tons were landed a year. By 1998, the catch had dropped to 285 metric tons.

The Pacific Fisheries Management Council, a quasi-governmental body composed of government officials and fishing industry representatives, has proposed to allow continued harvests of bocaccio. According to the council's own analysis, there is only a 50 percent chance that its management plan will succeed in rebuilding bocaccio populations by the year 2172.

"It's unfortunate that once again the Bush administration has chosen to ignore the law and sacrifice sound science in making this decision," said Brendan Cummings, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Only ESA listing will ensure that the necessary steps are taken to bring about recovery of the bocaccio."

The bocaccio life cycle makes the fish particularly vulnerable. It is a long-lived species (individuals can live more than 40 years), which takes several years to reach sexual maturity, and it may produce young that survive into adulthood only once in a decade. Fishing pressure has been so intense, according to the environmentalists' petition, that even following years with good survival rates, most young bocaccio are likely caught before they can reproduce. In addition, because they school with other groundfish, bocaccio are often caught as bycatch in unrecorded numbers and tossed overboard dead.

Many other Pacific groundfish are also in trouble. Since 1999, NMFS has been forced to declare nine of the 16 groundfish species that it manages as overfished. Last month federal fisheries managers acknowledged the severity of the problem and closed much of the Pacific coast to commercial bottom fishing. But environmentalists say that emergency fishing regulations are not a substitute for additional measures to protect imperiled fish from extinction.

"The bocaccio fishing gold rush was brief, and now the species is in terrible trouble," said Dr. Mark Powell, fish conservation director for The Ocean Conservancy. "This crisis demonstrates our nutty approach to fishery management: we subsidize fishing boat construction, let fishermen write their own rules, and then buy back the boats when the fish are gone. We need refuge areas to protect fish from high-tech fishing fleets that have grown too big and too effective."

Instead of relying on desperate measures after fisheries have already crashed, environmentalists say some areas of the ocean need to be set aside permanently as places where all fishing and destructive activities are prohibited. They point to the California Fish and Game Commission's decision last month to create marine reserves encompassing nearly 170 square miles of ocean around the Channel Islands. The federal government is considering similar protections for adjacent waters under its jurisdiction around the islands.

"California's temporary rockfish conservation zone, where some kinds of bottom fishing are prohibited, is a necessary step, but we also need permanently protected areas where the whole web of life can regenerate," said Garrison. "Marine reserves allow fish to live and grow undisturbed. It's time to stop responding to crises and start preventing them. We need these areas as buffers against future catastrophe, so we don't have threatened species in the first place."

The bocaccio petition was filed by NRDC, The Center for Biological Diversity and The Ocean Conservancy.

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 Center for Biological Diversity is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and restoration of marine and terrestrial biodiversity through science, policy and environmental law.

The Ocean Conservancy strives to be the world's foremost advocate for the oceans. Through science-based advocacy, research, and public education, we 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 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.