Reinforcing the need to protect vital ocean habitat areas and end overfishing of New England’s severely depleted groundfish, the Conservation Law Foundation and Earthjustice filed a pair of lawsuits in federal district court challenging the shortsighted and damaging groundfish regulations developed by the New England Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for the 2013 fishing year.
The first lawsuit challenges NMFS’s plan to open several groundfish conservation areas in New England that have been closed for at least a decade to commercial fishing for cod, haddock, and flounder.
The second suit challenges a plan to boost 2013 catch limits for several New England groundfish stocks beyond the allowable science-based limits by “carrying over” ten percent of the quota from 2012 that fishermen were unable to catch.
The science is clear—cod stocks are in their worst shape ever in the history of New England fishing. Cod on Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine are at nine percent of healthy levels, 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. Many fishermen couldn’t come close to meeting their quotas last year because fish populations are so low. Fisheries scientists say there is no cause for optimism that stocks will rebound any time soon.
Despite this overwhelming evidence, the fishing industry—now enabled with a deeply misguided lawsuit from Attorney General Martha Coakley—has placed growing pressure on regulators to allow fishermen to catch more fish and trawl previously protected habitat. 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.
NOAA’s actions are legally and scientifically wrong, plain and simple. Authorizing continued overfishing won’t create more fish. NMFS’s actions to potentially allow new fishing in protected areas have been implemented through a shoddy process that undercuts responsible development of fishery management plans and ignore the requirement to complete a full environmental impact statement. That’s a clear violation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
These suits make a simple request of NMFS—to follow the science and the law. The agency must show leadership in ending overfishing and protecting vital habitat areas like Cashes Ledge, or there is little hope for the future of New England’s iconic fisheries and a healthy ocean.