Ocean conservation took a huge leap today when science and law won over raw politics in a landmark federal court decision holding that National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) management of the giant North Pacific fisheries is illegal. After decades of neglect during which sea lions, harbor seals and other key species in the North Pacific declined drastically, NMFS finally was held accountable for violating our Nation’s most important environmental laws.
The U.S. District Court in Seattle held that the government violated both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in its management of the fisheries. The court decided the agencies failed to take the measures recommended by its own scientists to protect the sea lions. The court also found the agency failed to prepare a comprehensive environmental impact statement assessing the impact of this massive fishery on the North Pacific ecosystem. Trawlers from Washington, Oregon and Alaska net hundreds of millions of tons of fish from sea lion critical habitat – the areas most essential to sea lion survival.
The Steller sea lion is one of many ocean predators losing the race with industrial fisheries in the North Pacific ocean. Last April, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and Trustees for Alaska filed a lawsuit on behalf of Greenpeace, American Oceans Campaign, and the Sierra Club seeking to force the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to take action to prevent the collapse of the North Pacific ecosystem.
“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 Doug Ruley, an Earthjustice attorney in Alaska. “The decision today will force the Agency to take aggressive measures to conserve the North Pacific ecosystem and maintain healthy fisheries that truly are sustainable.”
“This decision means there is an opportunity to change the management of the fishery to sustain the ecosystem. The next phase of the case will address short-term changes in the fishery needed to protect the ecosystem while the agency brings itself into compliance with the law,” said Janis Searles, Attorney with Earthjustice.
The lawsuit is part of the Ocean Law Project, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.