Judge Orders Full Evaluation of North Pacific Fishery to Protect Steller Sea Lions
In a second sweeping opinion, the federal district court of the Western District of Washington has ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service is in continuing violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in its management of the North Pacific groundfish fisheries, the largest fishery in the North America.
On Tuesday, the Court ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service has completely failed to consider the effects of its federally managed fisheries program on endangered Steller sea lions. This ruling follows an earlier decision under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that the agency had been fishing without any understanding of the true impact of the fisheries on the environment. In order to comply with the ESA and NEPA, the agency must examine the individual and cumulative effects of the fisheries on the North Pacific ecosystem, and consider changes to the current fishery management regime.
Throughout the opinion, the Court noted that the agency has broken promises over the years and has utterly failed to meet the mandates of the Endangered Species Act, even failing to examine relevant and available data in its latest efforts to comply with the law. The opinion stated, "NMFS's analysis is admittedly incomplete and its conclusions inconclusive."
"NMFS undermined its credibility with the Court in its ability to protect the endangered Steller sea lion," said Paul Clarke of Greenpeace. "Greenpeace has long been skeptical of NMFS's repeated concessions to the industrial trawl fleet; now the court has shown that we were not mistaken."
The summary judgment came in a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and Trustees for Alaska on behalf of Greenpeace, American Oceans Campaign and the Sierra Club. The court rejected NMFS's attempt to dismiss the case and will require NMFS to complete the study of the North Pacific groundfish fishery to evaluate effects on the Steller sea lion, which was reclassified from 'threatened' to 'endangered' in 1997.
"The trawl fleet has brought intense pressure on the agency to allow continued overexploitation of the North Pacific, despite the impacts to sea lions, harbor seals, and to the long-term health of the fisheries," said Janis Searles, an attorney with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Alaska. "The ruling forces the Agency to finally evaluate what it will take to conserve the North Pacific ecosystem and maintain healthy fisheries that are sustainable."