A mammoth tuna that's prey for too many hooks, taste buds and spilled oil … Endangered salmon that once swam in numbers thick enough to walk on … Groundfish that formerly fed continents, but now barely feed towns … An ancient fish whose fate is linked to the fate of the once-mighty Colorado River.
Driven towards extinction by humankind, these fish are fortunate in one regard: they have Earthjustice on their side. Meet just a few of the fish species Earthjustice litigation has worked to protect.
Atlantic Bluefin Tuna
The Atlantic bluefin tuna is the granddaddy of the ocean's most-prized catches. Served as sashimi, a Japanese raw fish delicacy, the bluefin demands big money in Japan where one large specimen reportedly sold for $100,000.
The tuna are plundered by fishing vessels while travelling to the Gulf of Mexico to spawn. Once there, they are decimated by longline fishing boats seeking other species. And in 2011, one agency estimated that 20 percent of the tuna spawn died in the oil and dispersant of the BP oil spill disaster; scientists fear the damage is even worse.
Earthjustice is supporting efforts to designate the bluefin's Gulf spawning grounds as a no-take zone, and has sued to help prevent future oil spill tragedies.
In the Pacific Northwest, it is recalled that during a run, "you could walk across the river on the backs of the salmon." But the multitudes once known by rivers like the Columbia, the Sacramento and the Klamath are mostly memories—victims of dams, loss of habitat, water diversions and other human-caused problems.
It is remarkable, considering these circumstances, that salmon and steelhead—and the indicator species, the delta smelt—still exist. Could it be the salmon survive because of what the ancient Celts described as their wise, mystical nature? Or could it be the years of Earthjustice litigation and pressure to ensure protections?
Dams have come down recently because of that pressure, and water supplies have been partially restored. But, throughout the western U.S., the struggle over water continues.
Colorado Humpback Chub
As with salmon and steelhead, the humpback chub is threatened by intensive management of a river system. But, unlike those flashier fish, the chub swims out of the public eye in the lower Colorado River. There, it dwells in small numbers in the shadow of its nemesis: the Glen Canyon Dam, operated to provide power for the megacities of the West.
The chub evolved to use the large hump between its head and dorsal fin to help navigate swift spring runoff. The dam, however, blocks high flows needed to develop sandbars and side-channels used as breeding grounds by the chub. The dam also produces cold water that stuns young chub and favors predatory invasive species. This ancient fish, a key indicator of the lower river's health, is struggling to survive in such conditions, making quick legal action necessary.
Earthjustice is working to get federal regulators to alter how dam operations affect the river's ecosystem.
New England Groundfish
While the humpback chub is dying off due to loss of habitat, the groundfish of New England waters are in crisis because of their popularity. Simply put, they are overfished.
Earthjustice helped secure new science-based limits on the targeted catch of these species. But the situation remains especially dire for flounder, cod and haddock, whose recoveries are stalled because they are being killed by herring industrial trawler boats that net the groundfish as bycatch.
Cod and the closely related haddock, both dietary staples of Atlantic communities for ages, were an important part of the early American economy. In fact, the cod is deemed of such prominence that the Massachusetts State House in Boston is still presided over by the Sacred Cod of Massachusetts, a pine wood carving from 1784.
Earthjustice is working to ban herring trawlers in cod and haddock spawning areas.
Illustration: Carl Dennis Buell
Explore an interactive map describing how work from each of Earthjustice's regional offices contributes to a holistic approach of protecting the broader ocean ecosystem: Oceans' Eleven