Environmental Groups Call on NOAA to Fix Failing Monitoring Program

CLF and Environmental Defense Fund move to protect groundfish

Kelp Forest and Red Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine. Photo: Brian Skerry

January 14, 2019 (BOSTON) – Conservation Law Foundation and Environmental Defense Fund have challenged NOAA Fisheries, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the New England Fishery Management Council to properly manage the region’s ailing groundfish stocks. In a letter sent to the leaders of these agencies, CLF and EDF call for improvements to monitoring practices so that managers can make informed decisions.

“Too many of New England’s fisheries are still in crisis,” said Peter Shelley, senior counsel at Conservation Law Foundation. “Without knowing how many fish are actually being caught and being discarded at sea without being reported, the agencies are managing the fishery in the dark. This irresponsible management isn’t tolerated anywhere else in the country, and it’s unacceptable in New England as well.”

Only 15 percent of all fishing trips are required to be monitored in New England, and recent reports from NOAA Fisheries have shown that the current system cannot even achieve that requirement. CLF and EDF are calling for a process already underway in the New England Fishery Management Council, called Amendment 23, to be expedited so that full accountability is in place for the fishery by the start of the 2020 fishing season. Additional resources and increased leadership oversight are critical to improving the situation, especially in light of the current partial government shutdown, which will create extra workloads for agency personnel upon their return to work.

“Time is running out for the New England groundfish fishery and the people who rely on it,” said Johanna Thomas, New England Director, Environmental Defense Fund. “We can turn this fishery around with full accountability and a cost-effective monitoring program. The tools, technology, and policy exist to solve this problem, but our fisheries leaders must act now.”

Decades of poor management and lack of good data have led iconic New England fish like Atlantic cod to be severely overfished to the point of commercial collapse. While cod and other species have not been fished above their catch limits according to official reports, federal and state fisheries officials concede that thousands of pounds of cod are being thrown away by some boats on every trip without being reported. This past spring, the government reported an unprecedented number of complaints by fishermen of cod illegally discarded on fishing trips and not being recorded by federal fishery observers onboard.

For the management system to work, it is necessary for regulators to have access to good science; good science requires that scientists know exactly how many fish are landed (caught and brought to shore) and how many are discarded (caught but thrown back overboard, dead or mortally wounded). Without accurate and reliable monitoring, it is impossible to know when the catch limits for a stock have actually been reached so that a fishery can be closed for the population to recover.

The organizations are calling on fishery managers and regulators to do what is required of them by law: to accurately monitor the fishery and ensure it complies with catch limits.