Last Friday, Oceana, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service (Fisheries Service) for its continued failure to prevent overfishing, use the best available science, or account for the food needs of ocean animals in managing anchovy — a species critical for feeding ocean wildlife off the West Coast. The lawsuit was filed in response to a final rule issued last month by the Fisheries Service. The rule established a multi-year, unchanging catch limit for anchovy that does not account for the frequent, and sometimes rapid, cycles of booms and busts in the size of this population. The final rule is a near carbon copy of an earlier proposal by the Fisheries Service in 2016 that was struck down in court because it did not use best available science and did not prevent overfishing.
The Fisheries Service continues to manage certain fish populations, including northern anchovy, by setting multi-year catch limits that stay in place regardless of the population’s status. The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District Court of California, claims that in failing to actively manage the anchovy population based on current population size, the Fisheries Service has once again failed to use the best available science, prevent overfishing and ensure adequate forage fish for dependent predators. Anchovies are critical to supporting a healthy ocean food web, particularly off California. Numerous fish, birds, and marine mammals depend on anchovies as prey, including Chinook salmon, humpback whales, dolphins, sea lions, great white sharks, and brown pelicans.
“We remain frustrated that the Fisheries Service continues to ignore state of the art fish population surveys produced by their own scientists when deciding how many anchovies fishermen can catch on an annual basis,” said Geoff Shester, California Campaign Director and Senior Scientist, with Oceana. “Ocean wildlife, fishing families, and local economies that include sportfishing and whale watching businesses are reliant on abundant populations of anchovy and other forage fish. Without sufficient availability of these fish, whales, sea lions, pelicans, and other animals risk malnourishment which in turn inhibits their ability to successfully reproduce and raise their babies. We saw this a few years ago when more than 9,500 California sea lions washed ashore starving and emaciated.”
“The amount of fish allowed to be caught needs to be linked to the amount of fish actually in the sea,” said Andrea Treece, an Earthjustice attorney representing Oceana in the case. “The Fisheries Service’s refusal to acknowledge this basic principle of fisheries management is flat-out nonsensical and runs afoul of the law. The Fisheries Service’s insistence on keeping the same catch limits in place regardless how small the anchovy population gets risks depriving marine predators of essential food and weakening the marine ecosystem so important to Californians and coastal communities. And this risk would be easily avoided if the agency just used the science it already collects to make sure anchovy catch limits are updated each year based on the actual size of the anchovy population.”
- In 2016, Oceana, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit, challenging the decision by the federal government to set a catch limit for the central sub-population of northern anchovy (the population found off California) failed to prevent overfishing and did not base catch limits on the population size.
- In January 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District court of California ruled in Oceana’s favor that the Fisheries Service must apply the best available science about the current population size when establishing catch limits for anchovy to prevent overfishing.
- In response to push back by the Fisheries Service, a federal judge confirmed the original court order again in June 2018.
- In January 2019, a year after the original court ruling, the Court granted Oceana’s request to take action and ordered the government to meet its legal obligations within 90-days.
- The Fisheries Service’s May 31, 2019, rule, however, repeats many of the same errors as the original 2016 rule.