Observable Impacts

How a Court in Alaska may have a big impact on New England commercial fisheries

Courtesy noaa.gov

Courtesy noaa.gov

A recent court decision in Alaska could have important impacts here in New England. The decision by the U.S. District Court for the district of Alaska just may be the ruling that will change the high volume trawl fisheries along the East Coast.

The lawsuit was filed by The Boat Company, a not-for-profit corporation whose mission to protect and conserve Alaska’s fisheries, is supported by a sport fishing and ecotourism operation based in Sitka and Juneau and Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources and wildlife of this earth, as well as defending the right of all people to a healthy environment. The legal action claimed that NOAA Fisheries violated the National Environmental Protection Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Act when it arbitrarily changed the level of observer coverage in the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries. The entire order can be read at http://earthjustice.org/documents/legal-document/north-pacific-groundfishery-observer-order-8-7-14.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll state that I took one of The Boat Company trips a number of years ago. I am not surprised that they had all their ducks in a row when they took this action. I have taken trips all over the world and theirs was the best-organized trip that I have ever experienced. ’Nuff said.

Back to the facts. In a nutshell, the company’s action against the Secretary of Commerce alleged that NOAA Fisheries had changed the North Pacific observer program level of coverage in the GOA groundfish fishery after the North Pacific Council had issued Amendment 76 to the fishery management plan for groundfish of the GOA, as well as its observer program, which spelled out the required level of coverage for a variety of vessel categories in the groundfish fishery. During the implementation process, the regional NOAA Fisheries office was faced with an increase in the daily cost of observers and accordingly adjusted the level of coverage for an important vessel category from 30 percent to 13 percent to stay within the observer budget. This was done without any analysis or public input through the NEPA environmental assessment process. The concern was that at the 13 percent level the observer data would not be sufficient to meet the MSA requirements under national standard 9, which deals with bycatch. Government statistics show that certain high-volume trawlers that are responsible for significant bycatch of salmon and Pacific halibut in the Gulf of Alaska, essentially all of the salmon bycatch and 87 percent of the halibut bycatch in the GOA.

The judge in the case agreed with the plaintiffs in part – essentially, the most important part. He ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the law when it restructured the observer program for the North Pacific groundfish fisheries. As a remedy he required that “NMFS must prepare a supplemental EA [environmental assessment] that addresses the question of when data being gathered by the restructured Observer Program ceases to be reliable, or of high quality, because the rate of observer coverage is too low.”

Yeah, yeah, I know. Folks are asking how this impacts the New England fisheries. Well it doesn’t, but it could. The CHOIR Coalition is an acronym for the Coalition for the Atlantic Herring Fishery’s Orderly, Informed and Responsible Long-term Development. http://www.choircoalition.org/content/concernsgoals/ (Yes, it takes a lot of imagination to come up with CHOIR from that, but close your eyes and try real hard.) Comprehensive observer coverage of the large herring trawl fleet to help assess the levels of bycatch has been a CHOIR goal for a number of years.

“We believe that observer coverage should be maximized on the midwater fleet because of their capacity to incur large amounts of bycatch. The gear is extremely efficient, catching everything in its path, and while captains may make every effort to avoid it, they are capable of major bycatch events. Our groundfish resources are too fragile and important to allow the midwater trawl fleet to operate without the scrutiny and security of a strong and adequate observer program, especially as most directed groundfish boats sit at the dock, unable to fish these same areas.” Click here to see the CHOIR proposal.

Interestingly, the coalition also has worked with Earthjustice on past herring issues. So, IMO it is not a big leap to press NOAA Fisheries here in the greater Atlantic region for more comprehensive observer coverage for this fleet. Certainly given the condition of groundfish stocks in the Gulf of Maine, I would not be surprised to see an effort to use the judge’s decision on this coast. While CHOIR has been successful at getting increased coverage, it does not seem that we are where we should be. Yes, I understand the costs that these operations would have to bear, but these are vessels that can carry up to 1,000,000 pounds, so they can certainly foot the bill.

Since I am not a lawyer and don’t play one on TV, this case may not be transferable to the herring situation here on the East Coast. I hope that someone with a better understanding than I have is looking at the possibility. I want to make sure that managers understand the full impact of this fishery.

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"Rip" Cunningham, who owned, published and edited Salt Water Sportsman for 32 years, is also an accomplished writer and photographer. Cunningham has received several awards from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in such magazines as Field and Stream, Rod and Reel, Gray's Sporting Journal, Australian Boating and the Boston Globe Magazine. Among his many accomplishments, Rip was recognized as the Conservationist of the Year from both the International Game Fish Association, the Coastal Conservation Association of Massachusetts, The Billfish Foundation and Federation of Fly Fishers. "I've earned a living from fishing, and I believe strongly that people with an interest in a given area should give something back,” he says. “It's rewarding every single day." Cunningham received his MBA from Babson College in Wellesley, MA and his BA from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. He has two grown children and four grand children and lives with his wife and hunting dogs in Dover, MA and Yarmouth, ME. When he's not fishing or working through the items on his wife's "honey-do" list, Cunningham does some hunting and skiing.

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