(CN) - The government need not face claims that the amended New England fishery program leaves groundfish vulnerable to overfishing, a federal judge ruled.
Fishery management plans establish catch thresholds and "outline procedures for monitoring commercial fishing," under the oversight of the National Marine Fisheries Service, according to the Tuesday ruling.
In 2012, the service amended its New England fishery program with a rule that called for independent observers to monitor catch limits and the fishing of Northeast groundfish on 17 percent to 25 percent of all fishing trips.
Oceana challenged the rule in a federal complaint against the service, the secretary of Commerce, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It argued that the low monitoring rates were insufficient to protect groundfish from overfishing, especially since these rates in other fisheries were much higher - sometimes 100 percent.
Groundfish, also called bottom-feeders, live near or on the bottom of the body of water in which they live. They feed on plants, detritus or other bottom-feeders, and often have a flat ventral region that enables them to lie on the bottom.
The Northeast Multispecies Fishery oversees the fishing of groundfish in 19 authorized sectors off the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic coasts. Covered species include Atlantic cod, Atlantic halibut, haddock, Pollock, white hake, redfish, ocean pout, windowpane flounder, yellowtail and witch flounder, all of which have been depleted by overfishing.
Fisherman can either fish in the fishery as part of the "common pool" and abide by those limitations or join a sector, an association of fishing vessels that shares an allotment for each species of fish. Sector fishermen must obey annual catch entitlements for each species and submit weekly reports of "landed" and "discarded" fish to the service.
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg in Washington granted the defendants summary judgment Tuesday after refusing to let them fight the case in Massachusetts.
He found that many supposed new goals in the framework, like improving catch documentation, flesh out the broad goals already outlined in the amendment.
Since the amendment also opened the door for the service to consider other factors when determining monitoring levels, the new goals "may properly be thought of as an elaboration of those other factors [...and] a modest embellishment of the prior regulation, as opposed to a 'radical or fundamental change," the 29-page ruling states.
Oceana also failed to show that the framework is more concerned with cost than conservation, Boasberg found, noting that its primary goal is to enforce catch limits by improving catch documentation.
The group failed as well to challenge the minimum-coverage regulation, with Boasberg finding that the clarification of this issue in the framework does not undermine the service's accountability system.
The service cannot arbitrarily determine minimum-coverage levels but must comply with documentation goals set forth in the at-sea monitoring program, the ruling states. Sector-monitoring programs also ensure accurate catch reports because all vessels in an under-reporting sector are collectively and individually held liable for exceeding catch limits.
If fishery conditions remain the same as in previous years, then the challenged framework provides for only a 2.5 percent chance of overfishing, which is good enough to "ensure accountability," the ruling states.
Boasberg shot down Oceana's claims that the service's decision to set monitoring levels at 17 to 25 percent was arbitrary and capricious.
Given the number of buffers the service used in its calculation and its scientific expertise, the court found that monitoring range in the framework was not arbitrary.
The service also need not provide higher coverage for certain stocks because none of the allotted catch limits for these stocks was reached in 2011, the ruling states.
"Because the relevant portions of framework 48 and the 2013 sector operations rule comply with the Magnuson-Stevens Act and pass APA review, the court will grant defendant's cross motion for summary judgment and deny plaintiff's motion for summary judgment," Boasberg wrote, abbreviating the Administrative Procedures Act.
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