Federal Fisheries Regulators between a Rock and a Hard Place

Yesterday, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) added its own legal actions to cap off a week full of litigation over fisheries from Hawaii to New England. The CLF legal action is actually a pair of lawsuits filed in federal court against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) concerning the highly contentious New England groundfish fishery. These lawsuits come on the heels of a press conference in Boston on Thursday where Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley filed suit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

While both Coakley and attorneys from CLF both took legal action against the feds over recent regulations of the New England fishery, the plaintiffs were coming at regulators from very different angles. With many in the fishing industry claiming regulations are too restrictive and those in the so-called “green lobby” saying the regulations are not restrictive enough, it seems the feds are caught in the middle–between a rock and a hard place.

Feds Under Pressure from Both Sides

As I reported Friday, Coakley brought suit against NOAA, Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank, Acting Under Secretary and Administrator for NOAA Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Acting Assistant Administrator for Fisheries of the National Marine Fisheries Service Samuel Rauch III, and  the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) over new groundfish regulations, including severe quota cut for some species. Coakley claims these over-reaching regulations “will be a death sentence for the Massachusetts fishing industry.” The CLF suits, on the other hand, cite regulators for “shortsighted and damaging groundfish regulations” that are not restrictive enough.


Both sides blame the feds’ for not using the best available science to put appropriate regulations in place. For her part, Coakley says the new regulations are “built on an imperfect science” that has greatly underestimated stock health. For its part, CLF says the best available science shows stocks for species such as cod are in crisis.

“The Science is Clear”


In a blog entry published Friday, CLF says “the science is clear” insofar as cod stocks are concerned. “Cod on Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine are at nine percent of healthy levels,” CLF Oceans Program Assistant Leah Fine writes, “and they aren’t improving. The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries’ most recent trawl survey showed the lowest number of cod in the historical record…. Fisheries scientists say there is no cause for optimism that stocks will rebound any time soon.” Given what it refers to as “overwhelming evidence,” CLF says relaxing regulations at this point is absolutely the wrong move. As Fine writes:

These NMFS actions will allow fishermen to apply for access to 5,000 square miles of previously protected habitat. These vitally important areas, such as Cashes Ledge and the Western Gulf of Maine Closed Area, have been protected from the most damaging fishing gear for well over a decade, but are now at risk to being opened to new fishing pressure. Allowing new bottom trawling would damage critical spawning and nursery areas. Further, despite catch limits that already match or exceed the highest levels recommended by scientists, NOAA will allow fishermen to carry over ten percent of their quota from last year, effectively authorizing even more overfishing.

The Two New Lawsuits

The first CLF suit names Acting Secretary of the Department of Commerce Rebecca Blank, NOAA and NMFS, and alleges NMFS’s attempt to open several closed areas to commercial fishing for groundfish is illegal given what is known about the current status of groundfish stocks and regulators legal obligation to help stocks recover. The entire complaint can be downloaded as a PDF here.

The second CLF suit names the same defendants and seeks to reverse planned regulations that would allow fishers to carry-over 10 percent of 2012 quotas to 2013 for some groundfish species. This would, CLF claims, “boost 2013 catch limits for several New England groundfish stocks beyond the allowable science-based limits.” The entire complaint can be downloaded as a PDF here.


About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
This entry was posted in Groundfishing, Litigation, Northeast Fisheries, Overfishing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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