WASHINGTON (CN) - Blueback herrings deserve designation as a threatened species, environmentalists say in court, noting the critical role the fish play in Atlantic coastal ecosystems.
Blueback herring populations are a tiny fraction of what they once were, and the Secretary of Commerce violated the Endangered Species Act when she refused to list the fish as threatened, according to the complaint filed Tuesday.
Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., Anglers Conservation Network, Delaware River Shad Fishermen's Association, Great Egg Harbor River Council and Great Egg Harbor Watershed Association banded together for the action against Secretary Penny Pritzker and her designees.
"The secretary's listing decision analyzed the extinction risk for blueback herring in an arbitrary and capricious manner, was not based on the best scientific information available, failed to consider properly whether the blueback herring species is threatened throughout a significant portion of its range, and did not adequately address whether one or more distinct population segments of blueback herring should be listed as threatened," the complaint states.
Blueback herring have historically played important roles in their native ecosystems, as food for a variety of species and cover for migrating salmon. When their bodies decompose in the water, they then become a source of nutrients, the environmentalists say.
Through the mid-20th century, blueback herring supported large fishery businesses. From 1950 to 1970, fisheries caught an average of 50 million pounds of blueback herring and related river herring every year. Between 2000 and 2009, the number was down to 1 million pounds - a decline of 98 percent.
The Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the secretary in 2011 to review the status of the blueback herring. Two years later, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced its finding that the blueback herring population did not warrant listing as threatened, either as a whole species or as population segments. NMFS did not publish a status review report to accompany the decision, the plaintiffs say.
Though the NMFS found the blueback herring to be at a moderate-low risk extinction, the environmentalists say they determined population segments to be unstable only if there was a 95 percent certainty the population was declining.
Two of the population segments were declining at a rate of less than 95 percent certainty, and were therefore deemed stable, according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs say use of maximum-likelihood estimates, instead of the 95 percent certainty rule, would put blueback herring at a moderate-high risk of extinction.
Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator for fisheries, National Marine Fisheries Service; Kathryn Sullivan, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and the National Marine Fisheries Service are listed as defendants for their roles as designees of the Secretary of Commerce.
The plaintiffs are represented by Aaron Colangelo with the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Roger Fleming and Kristen Boyles with Earthjustice.
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