Feds Let NE Fish Go|to Waste, Oceana Claims

     WASHINGTON (CN) – New federal bycatch rules are not enough to keep Northeast Fisheries from circling the drain, environmental protection group Oceana claims in Federal Court.
     Oceana filed a lawsuit against the government last week for its “continued failure to create a method for monitoring the amount of wasted catch in New England and Mid-Atlantic fisheries, a region spanning from North Carolina to the Canadian border,” according to an Oceana statement.
     The group sued United States Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
     “Bycatch” is the term for the collection of ocean species other than the ones for which commercial fishery crews are fishing. Often, these fish and animals are discarded, either dead or dying, into the ocean, or when the boat reaches shore.
     In its statement announcing the lawsuit, Oceana writes, “New England, in particular, has been plagued for decades by lax monitoring and overfishing. The failure to monitor catch and enforce catch limits is in part responsible for the collapse of the New England groundfish fishery, including historically important Atlantic cod populations in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, which are currently at 3 and 7 percent of their former population levels.
     “Without accurate bycatch reporting and catch-limit enforcement, overfishing will continue, leading to smaller and smaller catches and lower profits for the fishing industry, and increased stress on critical marine ecosystems. In a vicious circle, this economic harm then creates pressure for the industry to disregard conservation rules that are the only hope for long-term recovery. For example, last month, rather than having industry pay for observer coverage, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to suspend all observer coverage in the groundfish fishery.”
     In a 2014 report, Oceana stated, bycatch “remains one of the biggest threats to the health of ocean ecosystems, contributing to overfishing and the decline of fish populations around the world. As much as 2 billion pounds of fish are discarded by fisheries in the United States each year, hindering the recovery of depleted stocks. … Oceana estimates that the value of discarded fish in the U.S. is at least $1 billion annually.”
     Each federally managed fishery must have a standardized way to collect and report the amount of bycatch that occurs.
     Oceana Inc. has challenged a federal regulation “that purports to establish the National Marine Fisheries Service’s standardized bycatch reporting methodology for the 13 Northeast United States federal fisheries.”
     Monitoring for wasted catch is mainly done by placing observers on a portion of fishing trips to count how many fish are caught and thrown back overboard, according to an Oceana statement. High-quality bycatch information is needed to ensure fishing quotas are being respected and overfishing does not occur, it says.
     While, in 2011, Oceana won a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for its failure to establish a catch monitoring system in the Northeast, the regulation it issued in June “leaves loopholes that would guarantee that observer coverage would never meet its performance standards, ultimately failing to fix the current insufficiently low levels of monitoring in the region,” according to Oceana.
     The watchdog seeks an order sending the regulation back with orders that it comply with the 2011 ruling in Oceana v. Locke, where the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated the government’s 2008 Standardized Bycatch Reporting Methodology Omnibus Amendment (SBRM).
     There is not enough data to fix the problem, and the June regulation underfunds precise data collection, stating there are issues of “practicability,” and that at its discretion, the NMFS could dole out available funding, “according to other priorities other than the SBRM process,” the lawsuit states.
     The current lawsuit “is just the latest in a long string of legal actions by Oceana calling for the service to finish a job Congress mandated almost 20 years ago: establish and implement a scientifically-defensible, unbiased and rigorous process for monitoring and managing bycatch to guide future conservation measures and protect the health and viability of our nation’s fisheries,” Ocean’s attorneys Charles L. Franklin and Paul E. Gutermann wrote in a statement. The attorneys, from Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld in Washington DC, are working pro bono for the cause.

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