A recent federal appeals court decision protects the viability of depleted groundfish species like cod and flounder in New England.
The region’s two biggest fishing ports, New Bedford and Gloucester, along with a commercial fishery association, had challenged a set of sustainable fishery rules established in 2010. Attorneys for the ports argued that the new rules were unfairly enacted and should be overturned.
Earthjustice intervened in the case on the side of the government. We represented the fishermen who pioneered the new fishing system, called “sector management.” These fishermen, and an increasing number of others like them in New England, are committed to implementing scientifically based catch limits that protect fishing as an economic engine and food source for future generations.
Earthjustice argued that the best available science supported the new rules and that they had been implemented legally and were fair to all fishermen. The court agreed and found that the rule’s implementation had been “rational, and not based on any error of law.”
The new ruling upholds a 2011 lower court decision brought by the same interests. After two big court losses, challenges have likely come to an end.
The linchpin of the new system is a cap on catch that is based on biologically determined amounts of each species of fish that can be safely removed from the ocean, while leaving enough to replenish the population. The old system merely attempted to limit the number of days boats could fish, but this led to chronic overfishing of species like cod and flounder as fishermen simply fished harder with more powerful gear to catch more fish in the time allotted.
The new system also turns significant management decision-making over to fishermen who fish in groups called “sectors.” In exchange, they commit to stay within their biologically determined caps. This allows fishermen to manage their businesses more efficiently and to take advantage of favorable market conditions for their catch.
Under the old rules, the species crashed and were not recovering. We need to find new ways of doing business or we risk losing the fisheries that are so much a part of the heritage in New England forever. While the transition to the new system has been hard on some fishermen, we need to give it time to work. Resolution to this legal challenge is one important step in that process.