District Judge Orders Closer Monitoring of Unintended Fish Catches in New England Fisheries

Trawlers sometimes discard large percentage of total catch at sea; cod and sea turtle populations often hit hardest


Steve Roady, Jared Saylor, Earthjustice (202) 667-4500

A federal district judge issued an order to the National Marine Fisheries Service on March 9, 2005 to better monitor bycatch, which is the unintentional catch of fish and sea life by commercial fishing boats along New England waters, thanks to litigation brought by a coalition of conservation groups represented by Earthjustice. The order will help minimize the unintentional catch of certain types of fish, sea turtles, and marine mammals.

Washington, D.C. Federal District Judge Ellen Huvelle agreed with arguments brought by Earthjustice on behalf of The Conservation Law Foundation and the Natural Resources Defense Council that the fisheries service violated federal law by failing to establish any meaningful program to gather and analyze bycatch data.

“This is the second time in three years that a federal court has ordered NMFS to comply with the law and establish a standardized reporting system for keeping track of fishing in New England,” Earthjustice attorney Steve Roady said. “The government should take immediate steps to comply with this order, by placing enough observers in the groundfish fishery to ensure that they obtain an accurate and precise count of fishing mortality.”

While the judge’s decision marks a huge step forward in protecting dwindling fish populations along the New England coast, overfishing in the area remains a significant problem. Excessive commercial fishing in the area has debilitated economically valuable Georges Bank cod populations, exceeding target catch limits set by fishery scientists by as much as 200%. The bank lies approximately 120 km off the New England coast. Unfortunately, the decision allows overfishing to continue for several years on Georges Bank cod and four other important fish stocks in the region

“Georges Bank cod is already struggling mightily and today’s ruling puts the species at even greater risk,” said Priscilla Brooks, director of CLF’s Marine Conservation program. “Allowing overfishing to continue at this time on such an important species makes no sense.”

The court’s ruling further imperils not only the codfish, but also New England’s fishing industry by placing the region’s most important fish species in danger of commercial extinction. Studies show that Georges Bank cod are showing almost no signs of recovery from record-low numbers in the mid-1990’s. Georges Bank codfish are currently at less than 14% of healthy and sustainable levels.

A copy of the judge’s order is available here.

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