Judge rules fishery service violated laws to protect groundfish

Colleen Valles
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

The National Marine Fisheries Service violated laws requiring it to protect the Pacific groundfish and failed to address the dumping of dead and dying fish at sea, a federal judge has ruled.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and The Ocean Conservancy sued the fisheries service last June, claiming it wasn't doing enough to find out how many groundfish are "bycatch," fish caught and discarded at sea because they weren't what the fisherman was looking for or the catch exceeded an allowed limit.

U.S. Magistrate Judge James Larson's ruling last Friday means the federal service and Pacific Fishery Management Council must rewrite the plan for management of the fishery.

Part of the plan calls for observers to go out with fishing boats to keep track of the bycatch.

Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the fisheries service, said the service began hiring observers last year and currently has 20, which accounts for about 10 percent of the fishing boats. He said the service expects to double that number by this summer.

"What we're doing now will certainly go a long way to help us better understand the size of the bycatch, and that will help, I think, with much more rational management of the fishery," Gorman said.

But the groups that sued said the service had failed to address the bycatch issue adequately.

"The fish really need the added protection because a bunch of these fish populations are crashing," said Drew Caputo, an attorney with NRDC. "The ruling is going to require the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Pacific management council to finally figure out how much bycatch is in the fishery, and it's going to require them to take affirmative action to reduce bycatch."

The bulk of groundfish caught are harvested with trawlers. That type of harvesting can contribute to bycatch because trawlers pick up other kinds of fish that weren't intended to be caught. Those typically get thrown back as bycatch, and often are dead or dying.

Nine of the 16 groundfish species that have been studied have been declared overfished since 1999. Those species include bocaccio, commonly known as Pacific red snapper, lingcod, and various species of rockfish.

Bocaccio numbers have declined 98 percent since 1969, and recently, the fisheries service declared whiting, used to make artificial crab, overfished and ordered a 32 percent cut in harvests.

Congress appropriated $5 million in relief after the federal government declared the Pacific groundfish fishery a disaster in 2000, and there have been calls to reduce the fleet by buying out half the 500 commercial groundfish permits. But legislation to appropriate the needed $50 million hasn't passed.