Oceans, the lifeblood of our planet, are threatened by overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction, and climate change. Partnering with conservation groups, fishing communities, and international organizations, Earthjustice has played a key role in enforcing domestic laws to compel better stewardship of the oceans.
We work to reform fisheries management in order to end overfishing and adopt ecosystem-based, precautionary management policies; to safeguard imperiled marine life from pollution, harmful fishing practices, and other threats; and to prevent expansion of offshore drilling and build resiliency in both domestic and international marine ecosystems so that ocean treasures like coral reefs can withstand the increasing degradation from climate change
Protecting Marine Food Webs And Ocean Ecosystems:
Overfishing is one of the most immediate threats to marine life on the planet. As traditionally defined, overfishing happens when fisheries take too many fish at one time, which can make it nearly impossible for the breeding population of a fish species to recover. Scientists now recognize that “ecosystem overfishing” can be just as great a threat. Ecosystem overfishing happens when fisheries catch too many of a key species—like a top predator or a vital prey fish—resulting in a cascade of ill effects on other species and even the marine habitat itself. For two decades, Earthjustice has pursued successful litigation and advocacy to end both types of overfishing and force the government to reform fisheries management.
Today, those efforts are focused on ending the devastating and long-term impacts of overfishing on forage fish—like herring, anchovies, and sardines—that are vital to the health of the ocean ecosystem. These often-forgotten fish are the primary food source for keystone predators like tuna, sharks, turtles, whales, and seabirds. Unfortunately, many populations of these important fish have collapsed in recent decades.
Along the mid-Atlantic seaboard, Earthjustice lawyers are working to secure much-needed additional protections for keystone fish, including Atlantic herring, menhaden, river herring, and shad, whose numbers have plummeted to historic lows. We are advocating for science-based regulations to rebuild these populations. Our lawyers continue to fight for similar protections in New England, where decades of mismanagement of both these critical forage species and commercially important species like cod and other groundfish have disrupted the food web, threatening entire ocean ecosystems.
On the West Coast, we are advocating for ecosystem-based catch limits and other protections for critical forage species like sardines and anchovies. These fish are essential to healthy populations of sea lions, pelicans and other sea birds, and humpback whales. But excessive fishing and changing ocean conditions have pushed these fish populations to historic lows, with rippling effects throughout the food web. Earthjustice and our clients are leading the fight to give these and other fish—and everything that relies on them—a chance to rebound.
But protecting the ocean food web alone is often not enough. Earthjustice is also working to protect sensitive marine habitats from destructive fishing and other extractive industries as the ocean becomes more accessible to industrial activities.
This includes protecting the unique undersea world found in canyons and other deep ocean habitats. Off the Atlantic coast, deep, cold-water corals nourish an amazing array of marine life, from tiny plankton to endangered right whales. In New England, a years-long effort by a diverse coalition of scientists, local businesses, and conservation groups culminated in President Obama’s designation of the first marine National Monument in the Atlantic Ocean. Earthjustice is working with these partners to defend the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument from a lawsuit filed by a property-rights organization and from the Trump Administration’s efforts to roll back this historic designation.
Elsewhere in the Atlantic, Earthjustice has successfully advocated to limit the use of harmful fishing gear like bottom trawls and dredges, and to protect deep-water marine habitats. We worked with our partners to convince regulators to create the largest protected area on the East Coast of the U.S.—a 38,000-square-mile expanse that runs along the coast from Virginia to New York—where bottom trawling and other destructive fishing practices are now prohibited.
Protecting Keystone Marine Life:
Ocean life is subject to a multitude of threats from human activities like pollution, harmful fishing practices, and noise. As top predators and keystone species, many iconic species serve as a beacon for the health of our oceans, and provide a warning of trouble. Earthjustice is working to safeguard these imperiled marine species through litigation that holds polluters accountable and stops harmful fishing practices that put marine life at risk.
We’ve achieved landmark legal victories in our ongoing fight to protect whales, dolphins, and other mammals from unnecessary harm from Navy sonar training and testing exercises in Hawaii and in the Pacific Northwest. Our litigation also targets the harm from seismic airgun surveys used for oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Atlantic Coast. Like sonar and explosives, the blasts from these airguns harm marine mammals and other ocean life. These harmful blasts are also a dangerous precursor to offshore drilling for fossil fuels that we cannot afford to burn if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Earthjustice has fought to ensure that threatened sea otters in California have a chance to recover. Most recently, Earthjustice intervened on the side of the government to successfully turn back the misguided efforts of the sea urchin fishery to eliminate these vital protections.
Earthjustice is advocating for improved fishery management in other areas, especially in fisheries that catch at-risk species such as sharks, swordfish, and tuna, throughout U.S. waters. Many of these species, like dusky sharks, are keystone predators that have been hammered by decades of direct overfishing—and now indirect overfishing as they are caught in high numbers as bycatch. We litigate to protect these, and many other key species, from ending up as waste in poorly managed fisheries.
Addressing The Climate Threat:
The impacts of climate change—from warming waters to ocean acidification—pose an existential threat to many ocean habitats. While Earthjustice is leading the fight to stop fossil fuel development and spur the clean energy revolution, our Oceans Program lawyers are also working to build resilience in the most affected ecosystems to better withstand these impacts—coral reef ecosystems. Coral reefs that are already degraded are especially vulnerable to harm from climate change. In the Caribbean, for example, we have successfully fought to reduce excessive fishing of parrotfish which play a vital role in the ecosystem by feeding on the algae which otherwise takes over and smothers the coral. We're also working with local and international stakeholders to build marine resilience to climate change in protected areas that conserve fish stocks and habitat critical to maintaining the ocean’s function as an effective carbon sink.
Earthjustice is also working in Florida to ensure that industrial projects do not cause further harm to coral reefs. The coral reef system in Florida is a national treasure—it is the only near-shore reef system in the continental United States and is the driver for a multibillion-dollar fishing and recreational economy. Earthjustice is working to ensure that a planned dredging project in Fort Lauderdale does not further stress this vital barrier reef, so that it has a fighting chance to survive.
In addition to our work helping ocean water ecosystems become more resilient to the impacts of climate change, the Oceans Program is working to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that enter our atmosphere from fossil fuel development. For years, Earthjustice has been leading the fight to stop oil and gas leasing in the undeveloped Arctic Ocean—home to a variety of unique marine mammals, including bowhead whales, belugas, and walruses. We have expanded that effort to keep oil rigs out of the rich and undeveloped waters of the U.S. Atlantic Coast, and to protect the Gulf of Mexico from the ongoing and increasing harms of oil and gas development.
A few of the Oceans Program’s significant advances:
- Defending New England’s First Marine National Monument
- U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers Returns To Drawing Board For Dredging Project
- Fishery Managers Shut Down Sardine Fishery
- Fishermen Angle Victory To Protect Link In Ocean’s Food Chain
- Court Ruling Means Greater Protections for California Sea Otters
- Deep Sea Corals Off Mid-Atlantic Coast Gain Historic Protections
- Navy Agrees to Limit Underwater Assaults on Whales and Dolphin
Contact Oceans Program
705 Second Ave., Ste. 203
Seattle, WA 98104
Drew Caputo VP of Litigation, Land, Wildlife and Oceans
Location: San Francisco
Steve Mashuda Managing Attorney
Chris Eaton Senior Associate Attorney
Shana E. Emile Associate Attorney
Brettny Hardy Staff Attorney
Location: San Francisco
Mary O’Hara Litigation Assistant II
Andrea Treece Staff Attorney
Location: San Francisco