Conservation groups told a federal court that the federal government is right to mandate a decrease in the amount of fish a few large commercial bottom trawlers are currently throwing overboard. The boats are discarding fish deemed uneconomic due to wrong shape, size or species. Hundreds of millions of pounds of wasted fish and other marine life that are thrown over the side of bottom trawl vessels every year. The suit centers on such discards, or bycatch, being taken by so-called head and gut trawlers fishing off Alaska. They typically drag the ocean bottom for fish such as rock sole, yellowfin sole, flathead sole, Atka mackerel and Pacific cod, and dump more bycatch overboard than any other segment of the North Pacific groundfish fishery.
“These companies should not be allowed to continue their wasting public resources while other segments of industry reduce bycatch,” said Earthjustice attorney Michael LeVine. “This case deals with a few large boats that still haven’t turned the corner into 21st century fishing.”
The conservation groups filed a brief with the court on September 1 explaining the reasons why a federal regulation aimed at reducing bycatch waste should be upheld.
The federal regulation, known as Amendment 79, requires certain Bering Sea and Aleutian Island bottom trawl catcher/processor vessels that are over 125 feet long to retain an increasing portion of their overall catch. It requires the boats to start retaining 65 percent of their catch in 2008 and increases to 85 percent by 2011.
“The reality that hundreds of millions of pounds of wasted fish and other marine life are thrown over the side of bottom trawl vessels every year is completely unacceptable to most Alaskans. Management measures that set at least a minimum standard for reducing excessive waste in the Bering Sea fleet are long overdue,” said Dorothy Childers, program director for the community-based Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
On May 5, 2006, two commercial fishing companies, the Legacy Fishing Company and the Fishing Company of Alaska filed the suit in the District of Columbia District Court to overturn Amendment 79 and its implementing regulations. The companies are based in Washington state but fish in the federal waters off Alaska. They claim that the bycatch reduction measures would be too costly. In response to the suit, Oceana and the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, with legal representation from Earthjustice, joined the federal government in defending Amendment 79 and its benefits for the ocean ecosystem.
“We cannot sacrifice long-term sustainability of our ocean ecosystems and commercial fisheries for the short-term gain of a few vessels,” said Janis Searles, senior counsel for Oceana. “This measure provides a strong incentive for dirty fisheries to clean up their act. The cost of their excessive discards to the oceans and our fisheries is simply too high.”
The head and gut fleet is so named because their fish are headed and gutted before being stored in the ship’s hold. Head and gut trawlers typically keep the most valuable fish while throwing the other fish (most of which are dead, dying or injured) overboard. The mainly do this because they don’t want to take up limited hold capacity with smaller, less valuable fish.
Implementation of the new regulation would require these same vessels to retain more of their catch, and will serve as an incentive for these vessels to fish “cleaner.”