Judge Delays Onset of New England Groundfish Limits

WASHINGTON, DC, December 6, 2002 (ENS) - A U.S. Federal District Court judge has agreed to delay the onset of new fishing restrictions for New England groundfish stocks from August 2003 until May 2004.

Groundfish are species such as cod, haddock, flounder that feed close to the bottom of the ocean from the Canadian border to Cape Hatteras.

The decision is a victory for the federal government and several environmental groups who had asked that the rules be delayed by nine months in order for the public to better understand the science behind the restrictions.

Opponents of the New England groundfish plan, who have repeatedly challenged the science behind the government's policy, have requested a delay of at least two years.

"We joined with the government in calling for a delay because certain powerful segments of the industry have been raising doubts, which are not based on any evidence, about the validity of the science that will underlie the rule," said Eric Bilsky, senior attorney with the conservation group Oceana, a lead plaintiff in the suit.

"The nine month delay is absolutely adequate and any further delay would be unjustified and harmful to the environment," said Bilsky.

Kessler

U.S. Federal District Court Judge Gladys Kessler (Photo courtesy U.S. Federal District Court)
The ruling by U.S. Federal District Court Judge Gladys Kessler pushes the deadline for implementation of Amendment 13, which will set catch limits on specific New England groundfish species, back from August 2003 to May 2004. It does not, however, change the court's 2009 deadline for rebuilding groundfish stocks.

The commercial fishing industry, as well as some state officials, has called for both the start date and the rebuilding deadline to be moved further back by at least another two years. Opponents of Amendment 13 believe the restrictions could be devastating to the livelihoods of local fishermen.

The judge's decision is "still going to add the burden on the industry," according to Paul Diodati, director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

This decision is only the latest legal ruling in a battle for the future of New England groundfish. The most recent studies indicate that 18 of 20 New England groundfish species, including cod, haddock and flounder, are below healthy population levels. Twelve of these species are at less than half of their sustainable population levels and eight species are at less than one-fourth of such levels.

Amendment 13 is itself the product of a December 2001 ruling that the plan to manage New England groundfish was not complying with the law. The court set the August 2003 deadline for the onset of Amendment 13, which provides a framework for overfishing and bycatch, as well as to set catch limits on specific New England groundfish species.

The lawsuit that has successfully moved this date to May 2004 came in the wake of industry allegations that government scientists relied on flawed sampling data techniques to collect data for the new groundfish regulations.

fish

Crew hauls in a groundfish catch. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
In September 2002 government scientists discovered that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Albatross IV, which was used to collect data on New England groundfish, had done so with mismarked cables, leaving some concerned that the net was set at an angle. The mismarking was on the cable used to deploy and haul back the survey trawl net on NOAA's Albatross IV ship.

This caused some tows to be deployed with more cable out on one side of the net than the other, according to NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The gear configuration affected eight resource surveys conducted between the winter of 2000 and the spring of 2002.

The fishing industry called the findings "trawlgate" and challenged the survey data, arguing that this configuration allowed fish to escape, resulting in undercounted stocks and restrictions that are tighter than necessary. Lobbyists for the industry have called for at least a two year delay to fully probe what they deem to be questionable science.

Environmental groups, NMFS and independent scientists believe the evidence refutes challenges over the integrity of the data. The delay that Judge Kessler granted yesterday will allow all interested parties to more thoroughly review the science behind the restrictions, according to the NMFS.

Proponents of the delay also point to planned public workshops and meetings in January that will foster further discussion of the impending restrictions and the science behind them. NMFS recently completed an additional survey that included side-by-side comparisons of fishing by a government research ship and an industry vessel. This study has not yet been released to the public.

"We are happy the judge has agreed with us," Bilsky said. "We believe that we need some time to let the fisheries service conduct some additional studies and peer reviews and to get the word out to the public that the science really is good.

"Certain segments of the fishing community are still posturing," he added, "but once this process really kicks into high gear in January and the truth gets outs there, we will get more and more consensus about the science and the conservation requirements. The fisheries service has laid out a very sensible program that will restore public trust in their science."