WASHINGTON (CN) - A scallop fishery's future effects on threatened loggerhead turtles deserve closer government attention, a federal judge ruled.
Oceana brought the loggerhead challenge at issue, its third in 13 years, over a 2012 biological opinion by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which found that the Atlantic Sea Scallop Fishery would not jeopardize the continued existence of the population of loggerhead sea turtles in the Atlantic Northwest
The fishery uses dredge and bottom-trawl vessels to catch scallops, and regulators determined that they system would also catch 301 loggerheads in 2012, of which 195 would die.
They predicted that technological advancements would eventually drop that number to 122.
Loggerheads are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and Ocean said that the government agency's "arbitrary and capricious" opinion disregarded the language and the spirit of the ESA.
For NMFS, however, the loss of life alone did not qualify as a threat to the continued existence of the loggerheads in that region. Pointing to the current estimated size of the region's loggerhead population, among other factors, it deemed the species strong enough to withstand the scallop fishing.
Oceana nevertheless claimed that NMFS had ignored the effects of climate change and the comments that Oceana submitted on the issue. It said the agency had failed to establish adequate monitoring processes to ensure that the fishery's operation does not exceed limits on the number of loggerheads that lawfully can be harmed.
U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman found Wednesday that the biological opinion sufficiently explained how NMFS reached its no-jeopardy determination.
The opinion also sufficiently indicates consideration of cumulative effects and the impact of other fisheries, the court found.
Oceana did, however, justify its challenge to the NMFS monitoring process, according to the ruling.
Friedman said that the NMFS opinion "fails to sufficiently explain how the specific number of dredge hours that NMFS has chosen as a monitoring surrogate adequately serves as a proxy for the numerical take limit of 161 loggerheads."
Further, the NMFS's summary of its trawl monitoring does not explain how the fishery will be able to take immediate action if it accidentally catches too many sea turtles.
"Given these serious uncertainties about the effectiveness of the five-year monitoring framework, the court must remand to the agency so that it can either provide a more thorough explanation of its choice, or, if unable to do so, reach a different conclusion," Friedman wrote.
Although Friedman remanded back to the NMFS the parts of its opinion that address monitoring accidental turtle catches at the fishery, the judge allowed the agency to continue using its existing monitoring tools while it re-evaluates its process.
Overall, Friedman determined that NMFS has sufficiently proven that the fishery operations will not impede the loggerhead turtle's continued population growth, despite some collateral damage.
Among other evidence of strength in the population, the NMFS had noted factors like wide dispersion, promising recent nesting trends, and the ongoing implementation of conservation measures.
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