Court finds fault with fishing rules
State and federal regulators should pay heed
to verdict in
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
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.