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Ocean Conservancy Sues the Trump Administration over Violation of the Freedom of Information Act

Groups seek answers stemming from Commerce Department's decision to extend recreational angling season for the Gulf of Mexico red snapper
Red_Snapper

Even though the red snapper population is recovering, the rate of catch in the recreational sector is growing even more rapidly.

Pen Waggener / CC BY 2.0
January 23, 2018
Seattle, WA —

Ocean Conservancy’s Meredith Moore, and Earthjustice’s Chris Eaton issued the following statements regarding the filing of a lawsuit in Maryland District Court against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for the agency’s failure to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.

Read the legal document.

Meredith Moore, Director of Ocean Conservancy’s Fish Conservation Program:

“The government has an obligation to the citizens of this country to manage our shared public resources in a transparent way, and it is unacceptable for them to withhold that information from us. By all indications, the red snapper decision was a politically motivated action that ignored science, contrary to the law.  Their decision will cause long term damage to the fishermen and communities that depend on this economically and ecologically important fishery. NOAA is withholding documents from the public that they are legally obligated to provide. The American people deserve to know what they’re hiding.

“Recreational fishermen of the Gulf of Mexico deserve a real solution to the problem of shortening seasons for red snapper, not a quick-fix shrouded in secrecy. We expect this lawsuit will shed light on the information and factors, or lack thereof, upon which the agency based its decision.”

Chris Eaton, Associate Attorney with Earthjustice’s Oceans Program:

“NOAA acknowledged receipt of Ocean Conservancy’s FOIA request in June. Yet, seven months have passed and the agency has failed to substantively respond to the records request. The agency’s stonewalling is discouraging and concerning. This administration has not been particularly transparent when it comes to taking actions that disregard basic science, like reopening the red snapper season.

“It is unfortunate that the public is forced to resort to the courts to obtain basic information on NOAA’s decision-making process.”

Background:

Sources for all facts and figures available on request.

  • In June, the Department of Commerce added 39 additional fishing days to this year’s private recreational angling season for the Gulf of Mexico red snapper. In its announcement, Commerce acknowledged that fishing at these levels for just one year could extend the rebuilding period for this vulnerable stock by as much as six years. This action was contrary to our nation’s fishing law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
  • Ocean Conservancy submitted a records request under the Freedom of Information Act to NOAA and NMFS on June 19, 2017, seeking records related to the reopening of the private recreational red snapper fishing season. Ocean Conservancy filed the FOIA request in order to get a full picture of how this extraordinary decision was made.
  • FOIA’s basic purpose is to ensure government transparency and the expeditious disclosure of government records.  FOIA imposes strict deadlines on federal agencies to respond to requests.  FOIA requires an agency to issue a final determination resolving an information request within 20 business days from the date of its receipt and to immediately notify the requester of its determination and the reasons therefore.
  • In late 2017, as part of the administrative record in its lawsuit challenging the red snapper season, Ocean Conservancy received memos from Earl Comstock to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross acknowledging the harm their sanctioning of significant overfishing would cause. The memos also include discussion about the fact that this decision could force Congress to act on dismantling conservation measures.
  • On December 20, 2017, the federal district court for the District of Columbia issued a stay in Ocean Conservancy’s lawsuit against the Department of Commerce, NOAA and NMFS for its decision to illegally extend the 2017 private recreational red snapper fishing season in the Gulf of Mexico. The Department of Commerce effectively conceded the illegality of its actions by failing to defend the case on the merits. The decision by the judge to maintain jurisdiction over the recreational red snapper season for 2018 is an important step in ensuring that future management decisions are focused on sustainability and accountability, for the benefit of both the fish and fishermen.
  • The Gulf of Mexico red snapper stock is in a rebuilding plan, after overfishing drove it to just 3% of its historic levels. Red snapper is just under halfway through a 27-year rebuilding plan and it is critical for Gulf fishermen and Gulf communities that we meet the deadline of having a healthy stock by 2032.

Contacts

Chris Eaton, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7340

Samantha Bisogno, Ocean Conservancy, (202) 280-6210

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