(CN) – Over the objections of hook-and-line anglers, the 9th Circuit on Monday upheld a quota system meant to increase the efficiency and sustainability of the Pacific groundfish fishery.
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The National Marine Fisheries Service amended the Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan in 2011 to include a quota system for trawl permit holders. Amendments 20 and 21 were designed to increase economic efficiency through fleet consolidation, to cut down on bycatch (the unintentional catch of some fish species), and to generally reduce environmental impacts on the fishery, which extends 200 miles off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.
According to the changes, trawl vessels that do not reach their assigned quotas can sell or trade their shares of a particular fish species with other vessels. The new plan divides the trawl fishery into three sectors and then assigns a certain number of fishing privileges within each sector. For the on-shore, hook-and-line sector, privileges are initially allocated based on catch history and then become transferable after two years.
Such “liberal transferability” is expected to increase efficiency and reduce bycatch, but it also “may force out participants from local fishing communities by consolidating privileges and making them more expensive,” the ruling states.
Representing fishermen who use traps or hook-and-line systems rather than trawl nets, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team and the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association sued after larger fishing companies received most of the quota shares.
They claimed that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the Magnuson-Stevens Act by failing to properly consider their community interests, allowing fleet consolidation to drive small fishermen out of business.
They also argued that the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it failed to consider the relative environmental impacts of the two amendments separately.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco ruled for the agency, and the federal appeals court unanimously affirmed on Monday.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires the agency to consider fishing communities, but does not “guarantee them a particular role in the program,” the panel found.
“NMFS was aware of these effects but decided to partially prioritize economic efficiency and fleet consolidation over the protection of existing fishery participants, a choice that requiredfewer restrictions on who could acquire and hold quota shares,” Judge Consuelo Callahan wrote for the panel. “The [Magnuson-Stevens Act] did not preclude NMFS from making that choice.”
The federal appeals court also concluded that the amendments will not necessarily favor “trawling over fixed gear relative to current management.”
“The EISs [environmental impact studies] explain that trawling is permitted under the existing fishery management plan and is responsible for the majority of the catch,” Callahan wrote.
She said the amendments “may actually decrease trawling’s dominance by consolidating the trawling fleet, allowing trawlers to switch to fixed gear, and allocating more fish to non-trawlers than they have caught in recent years. NMFS will re-evaluate amendment 21’s allocations every five years.”
On the federal environmental law claims, the panel found that NMFS “appropriately studied amendments 20 and 21 in separate [impact studies], considered an adequate range of alternatives, evaluated the amendments’ impacts on fish habitat and non-trawl communities, and considered and adopted appropriate mitigation measures.”
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