Court finds fault with fishing rules

State and federal regulators should pay heed
to verdict in critical lawsuit.

Ventura County Star
Friday September 22, 2000

Throughout the generally sorry history of fisheries management in the United States, regulators typically have been reactive -- proposing limits on the size or season of the catch after evidence has been presented that a targeted population is in serious decline. By then, it is often too late, and commonly the next step after imposition of strict quotas is closure of the fishery altogether.

To cite only two of many possible examples, that's what happened with the once-prolific fisheries for abalone on the West Coast and groundfish off the Atlantic coast.

A coalition of environmental groups and progressive members of the commercial and recreation fishing industries has been pressing for several years to change this approach -- to make regulatory agencies assess the likely effect of a management plan in advance, rather than just waiting for the fishery to collapse before proposing remedial measures. Last week, these advocates received influential backing from a dispassionate source.

On Sept. 13, U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that National Marine Fisheries Service regulations for five of the nation's eight fisheries management regions violate federal environmental laws. In a suit brought against NMFS by a group of nine environmental organizations and fishermen's associations, the judge concluded that NMFS had violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Sustainable Fisheries Act by failing to properly assess the effects of proposed fishing practices and to analyze potential habitat safeguards.

The judge ordered NMFS to perform more detailed study of how fishing will affect marine habitats in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, New England, Pacific and North Pacific management regions.

"It does not appear that NMFS took a hard look at the problem with any of the environmental assessments," the judge wrote. "There is no substantive discussion of how fishing practices and gear may damage corals, disrupt fish habitat and destroy benthic life that helps support healthy fish populations."

Among the fishing practices singled out for criticism by the plaintiffs were bottom trawling and scallop dredging, which not only catch target fish but also kill many unwanted species and scour the sea floor, destroying the nurseries and hiding places necessary for healthy sea life.

The goal of fishing regulations should be to protect all the ecological elements necessary to maintain robust, diverse populations of marine life. That means protecting habitat, protecting spawning adults, protecting the entire food web from plankton on up to the great predators of the sea. Regulations that simply limit the number of days a boat may drag its nets, or the tonnage of a particular species it may bring home, ignore the complexity of the marine environment and ultimately accomplish little.

Evidence of regulatory failure abounds. State and federal management agencies should take heed of the judge's ruling, for it represents both good law and good science. Fishing regulations should do the same.