“A lot of people have no idea that many of these ocean species are so badly depleted.”
Steve Roady speaks about Earthjustice's oceans litigation.
Intro: This is the first in a series of Q and As on Earthjustice’s oceans work, which works to prevent habitat loss and overfishing, as well as reduce the impacts of climate change on the ocean. Earthjustice’s Oceans Program Director Steve Roady has been litigating cases that help protect our oceans for more than a decade. Check out earthjustice.org/oceans for more information.
Jessica Knoblauch: What first drew you to oceans management work?
Steve Roady: I was first exposed to the oceans while growing up on Florida’s Gulf coast. I spent a lot of time on the beaches as a child and was always fascinated by the shrimpers. But I really first became aware of the key problems in the environment in middle school where we were all forced to read Rachel Carson’s classic book, Silent Spring. The idea that birds were dying because of DDT was just amazing to me and it really got me thinking about environmental issues.
JK: How does Earthjustice use the law to protect oceans?
SR: Earthjustice is one of the leading groups to begin looking at oceans’ problems through the lens of potential federal litigation. Basically, we work with three or four of your standard environmental laws. There’s the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the main federal fisheries act, which directs the federal government to prevent overfishing and to minimize bycatch, to protect habitat and to rebuild overfished fish populations. There’s also the National Environmental Policy Act, which mandates the federal government to carefully study the environmental effects of their actions before they take them. And we also invoke the Endangered Species Act to protect species like sea turtles, which are protected under the ESA but often killed as so-called bycatch in trawl fisheries around the country.
We invoke all of these statutes in an effort to try to curb the unrestrained fishing practices going on in federal fisheries and do our best to make sure the federal government is complying with the basic thrust of the laws that protect the ocean resource. Since we started the Ocean Law Project back in 1998, we’ve had a number of significant wins in the courts that set some significant precedents with respect to how the federal government manages ocean resources in a sustainable way. And typically we’ll have a case that we’ll bring on behalf of other groups, so if a case is won the precedent goes to everybody’s benefit.
JK: Do you think there’s a disconnect between people’s perception of the ocean and reality?
SR: Yes, definitely. You know, we are land-based animals after all. Part of the challenge of dealing with the oceans is that we don’t live in the oceans. And maybe even more importantly is that we can’t see into the oceans, so we really can’t see what the status of the resource is. Certainly when we started this, to look at the public perception of the oceans it was a little bit like we were back in 1818 when Lord Byron wrote that famous poem that talked about how man’s ability to ruin stops with the shore, that the oceans are vast and inexhaustible. I think that view is changing as more stories have come out about problems in the oceans. But I think a lot of people just have no idea just how badly depleted a lot of these ocean species are.
JK: How is climate change affecting the oceans?
SR: One of the many odious aspects of climate change is a phenomenon called ocean acidification, which retards the ability of shell-forming species and coral reef structures to grow and develop. As you lose the reefs and gradually lose the little critters like pteropods that are fed upon by bigger fish, the fish populations who rely upon the reefs and who rely upon these small shell-based creatures are threatened. It is a serious concern that the fishery managers have not yet found any systematic way to factor in these kinds of climate change induced problems into their setting of quotas and their regulation of the fisheries.
The real problem is that ocean acidification is inevitable at this point to some degree. We’ve loaded enough carbon dioxide in the air right now that even if everybody stopped breathing today, there’s still enough CO2 in the atmosphere to cause the oceans to acidify. The only question is how much more.
JK: With so many different threats facing the ocean, where do we begin?
SR: We’re certainly living in a target-rich environment in terms of going after the government for failing to take action, so we bring selective lawsuits that attempt to force the government to do a better job.
Many scientists are telling us that to make habitat structures, reefs and outcroppings more resilient to resist global warming we need to keep pollution off of them and to reduce overfishing of the fish that rely upon the reefs. So we are trying very hard to reduce land-based sources of pollution through cases being brought by our Seattle office and our D.C. office. We also won a case in the Gulf of Mexico where a reef fish fishery was using longlines that end up hooking a lot of endangered sea turtles protected under the ESA. We convinced the court to get this fishery to take better steps to protect the turtles.
We are also working with several very conscientious commercial fishing groups in New England that fundamentally understand, because they’re out on the water every day, that some of these fish populations are in trouble. And they understand further that it’s in their own economic self-interest to make sure that the fish populations stay robust. So we have been working with them now for a number of years to help advance constructive solutions to sustainable fishing. We think that sustainable fishing is really the only way to go. It works for both the fishermen and for the fish.