By Shane Powell
The tides are shifting this week for Pacific groundfish, their managers and fishermen.
A federal judge in Northern California has ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service has not adequately addressed the issue of bycatch - or unintentionally caught species that often die after being tossed overboard at sea.
Proponents of stricter management have long argued that more funding and further efforts are needed to learn about groundfish populations and those most affected by fishing quotas and practices.
Bycatch is a dominant problem for depleted species of groundfish off the coasts of Oregon, Washington and California. Since 1999, NMFS has declared nine of 16 studied species on the West Coast as overfished, and many managers, scientists and even fishermen regard bycatch as a leading culprit. Some 76 species remain to be studied.
The Pacific Marine Conservation Council, an Astoria-based fisheries advocacy group, was a party in the lawsuit filed last June contesting the legality of federal management strategies.
The group, along with co-plaintiffs the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Ocean Conservancy, has long argued for putting scientists on board fishing vessels to count numbers of discarded fish.
"This decision underscores the legal need for a fully-funded, mandatory West Coast groundfish observer program," said Scott Boley, a board member of PMCC and commercial fisherman from Gold Beach.
He added that better research will ultimately enhance stock information, now considered an obstacle to proper management.
"Solving this problem is central to sustaining our fisheries and the coastal communities that depend upon fishing," said Peter Huhtala, program director with PMCC in Astoria.
Officials with NMFS say the agency is well aware of the bycatch problem and is already working toward obtaining better information.
"It's been clear to us for some time that we didn't have a good method of counting fish," said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for NMFS in Seattle. "There's no doubt it's an issue."
He noted that 20 scientific observers had been placed aboard fishing vessels in August and that the agency expects to have 20 more working by June. "We will have gone from none to 40 by the beginning of this summer."
U.S. Magistrate Judge James Larson of the U.S. District Court for Northern California stated in his opinion that Congress, with the passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act in 1996, required NMFS to assess, report and minimize bycatch.
"Defendants' failure to minimize bycatch and bycatch mortality is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law," he stated.
NMFS had previously claimed that an amendment to its Groundfish Management Plan had adequately accounted for discarded species. But according to Larson's ruling, the amendment failed to consider all of its options, including the use of marine reserves, fleet reductions, incentives to fishermen and discard caps.
This is the third time in the past year that conservation and fishing groups have won lawsuits against the government for mismanaging the groundfish fishery.
In August, Larson ruled that NMFS had failed to make adequate allowances for bycatch in setting quotas for Pacific groundfish. He also ruled that NMFS had violated requirements for rebuilding plans for overfished species.
Overall, the efforts are not about putting a halt to fishing, Huhtala said.
"It's imperative for the government to help us develop incentives for fishermen to more effectively harvest healthy stocks while avoiding those in decline," he added. "The more progress we make in this regard, the more fish will arrive at our docks ... Now it remains for fishermen, scientists and managers to work together to achieve superior solutions."