A federal district court ruled today that a group of Alaska bottom trawl fishing vessels must reduce the amount of fish they throw overboard as waste in the process of targeting the most valuable fish. The bottom trawlers drag a net across the ocean bottom and catch both fish they are targeting as well as non-target species that are discarded dead. The court order keeps in place a federal regulation, known as Amendment 79, scheduled to take effect in 2008. 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. Some bottom trawl boats had sued to invalidate Amendment 79.
Conservation groups intervened in the lawsuit filed by the bottom trawlers to defend the federal bycatch regulation. The conservation groups told the court that the federal government is right to mandate a decrease in the amount of fish bottom trawlers are currently throwing overboard. The boats are discarding fish deemed uneconomic due to wrong sex, size, or species. Hundreds of millions of pounds of wasted fish and other marine life are thrown over the side of bottom trawl vessels every year. The trawlers typically fish for rock sole, yellowfin sole, flathead sole, and Atka mackerel and dump more bycatch overboard than any other segment of the North Pacific groundfish fishery.
“The court has ruled that these companies will not be allowed to continue wasting public resources,” said Earthjustice attorney Michael LeVine. “This case deals with a few large vessels that still haven’t turned the corner into 21st century fishing.”
“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.”
Implementation of the new regulation will require these same vessels to retain more of their catch, and will serve as an incentive for these vessels to fish “cleaner.”