A federal judge issued a ruling Tuesday that could yield stronger protections for four keystone fish species whose numbers have plummeted to historic lows. The court ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to conduct an in-depth environmental analysis and consider immediately adding river herring and shad to its federal Fisheries Management Plan for the Mid-Atlantic region.
The National Marine Fisheries Service is required to regulate fish that need conservation and management. But the Service has failed to do so, despite the fact that river herring and shad populations have been decimated along the east coast, dropping by more than 95 percent in recent decades. The judge found that NMFS violated the National Environmental Policy Act because it failed to consider a reasonable range of alternatives or to assess the environmental impact of failing to protect river herring and shad.
Earthjustice, a national nonprofit environmental law firm, filed the lawsuit in March 2014 on behalf of the Anglers Conservation Network, Gateway Striper Club, Captain Paul Eidman and Philip Lofgren, explaining that these fish serve as an important food source for mid-Atlantic predator fish, marine mammals and sea birds, but are routinely caught and killed as “bycatch,” especially by the Northeast region’s industrial trawl fleet fishing for Atlantic mackerel and herring. As a result, their numbers have dropped to less than 5 percent of historic population levels.
The federal district court’s ruling gives the agency until October of this year to conduct the environmental analysis. If river herring and shad are ultimately added to the management plan, the Service will be required to establish science-based regulations to rebuild fish populations. River herring were designated as a ‘species of concern’ in 2006 due to their drastic decline, but this designation provided no protection.
“The National Marine Fisheries Service invested millions of federal dollars in state waters habitat restoration for river herring and shad but continues to undermine their recovery by failing to protect them in federal waters,” said Earthjustice Staff Attorney Roger Fleming. “This order is a step in the right direction that will require the federal agency to take a hard look at the environmental repercussions of their decision, including consideration of a reasonable alternative our clients support—immediately adding river herring and shad to the Mid-Atlantic region’s fishery management plan. The agency’s own scientific data shows these fish are caught and killed by the millions in Atlantic mackerel and herring fisheries and need protection.”
On October 8, 2013, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service voted to cease development of a separate amendment that was initiated specifically to add river herring and shad to the Atlantic Mackerel Squid and Butterfish Management Plan. Without disputing the need for conservation and management, the NMFS Regional Administrator cast the deciding vote in a 10-9 decision to stop development of the amendment and avoid triggering conservation requirements for river herring and shad.
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