On the eve of Thanksgiving, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission filed court papers arguing that they shouldn’t be held accountable for the steep population collapse of river herring and shad.
There’s just one problem with that argument: according to law, both agencies are responsible.
Back in September, we filed a lawsuit against the agencies for failing to take measures to stem the decline of these fish populations. We represented the Martha’s Vineyard/Duke’s County Commercial Fishermen’s Association and angler Michael S. Flaherty in the suit.
“I can see why they waited until Thanksgiving to file these papers,” said Flaherty of Wareham, Mass. “They tell the public at their management meetings they care about river herring and want to help, but then tell the court they are under no obligation to change anything they are doing and that we shouldn’t even be allowed our day in court.”
River herring and shad are critical components of the Atlantic coastal ecosystem, providing a significant source of food for a variety of fish, birds and mammals. Both fish populations have been decimated by the unregulated catch of industrial midwater trawl fishermen (those guys again!).
The Magnuson-Stevens Act and the Atlantic Coast Fisheries Cooperative Management Act are laws to conserve fish populations by preventing overfishing, rebuilding depleted stocks, establishing annual catch limits and accountability measures, and minimizing bycatch—leftover fish usually killed and discarded. And it’s the task of these agencies to keep those laws in place.
“Remarkably, the ASMFC has asserted that they can't be held accountable in any court for their actions. They claim they’re untouchable!” said Roger Fleming, the Earthjustice attorney representing the plaintiffs. “And if the court agrees with them then it is clear that the Fisheries Act needs to be amended at the earliest opportunity.”
But we’ve got some good news: the National Marine Fisheries Service just released a rule that will help to replenish depleted groundfish stocks. Specifically, all fish that is caught must be documented by federal observers. Before, ships could just dump unwanted fish leading to inaccurate documentation of how much fish was actually being caught. We’re hoping the tide is changing—for the better.