Groups Launch Dual Lawsuits to Protect Groundfish in New England

Suits challenge plans to open no-fishing zones and to boost catch limits


Karen Wood, CLF, (617) 850-1722


Roger Fleming, Earthjustice, (978) 846-0612

Attorneys from Conservation Law Foundation and Earthjustice filed a pair of lawsuits today in the federal district court challenging recent decisions by the National Marine Fisheries Service regarding New England groundfish.

The first lawsuit challenges NMFS’s plan to open several groundfish conservation areas in New England that have been closed, in some cases, for decades to commercial fishing for cod, haddock, and flounder.

The second suit challenges a plan to boost 2013 catch limits for several New England groundfish stocks beyond the allowable science-based limits by “carrying over” ten percent of the catch quota from 2012 that fishermen were unable to catch.

With regard to these closed area openings and increased catch limits, Peter Shelley, senior counsel with CLF who has worked to protect New England groundfish for 20 years, said, “Cod are in the worst condition ever in the history of New England fishing and probably getting worse. Fishing on cod should be closed down, not expanded into new areas. The failure of the federal government to adequately respond to this crisis is going to start rippling through all the fisheries, even the healthy ones.”

The industrial groundfish fleet lobbied NMFS hard to increase catch limits and open closed areas despite the continuing decades-long management failure to recover several cod and flounder stocks. The five areas at risk total over 5,000 square miles and include Cashes Ledge, an underwater mountain range that houses varied and critical ocean habitats from kelp forests to mussel beds to productive mud plains.

“To even consider opening areas that total the size of Connecticut after some of them have been closed for nearly 20 years is a federal action with major consequences that requires a full amendment to the management plan and an environmental impact statement,” said Roger Fleming of Earthjustice. “Fish require more than just cuts in catch to recover. It is not just arbitrary but completely disconnected from common sense to think there is no linkage between habitat and healthy fish populations.”

Groundfish like cod were once important apex predators in the Gulf of Maine ecosystem and were the foundation of one of the nation’s most iconic fisheries. Now, in addition to the chronic and severe overfishing they have been subjected to in recent decades, their recovery is being also affected by changes associated with greenhouse gas emissions such as increasing ocean temperatures.

“With the science clearly showing cod at its lowest levels ever and the as yet unknown effects of a changing climate on our fisheries, managers should be acting conservatively to steward the remaining fish and the places they have retreated to, not making them more available to the fishing fleet,” argued Shelley. “The majority of New England residents want a healthy ocean and abundant fish populations for their grandchildren to catch in the decades to come. Opening up protected areas will not magically create new fish.”

NMFS’ own data and analysis show that there will be little economic benefit for fishermen in the short term from opening closed area or increasing catch limits. Any temporary benefit will be greatly outweighed in the long-term as habitat will be damaged by bottom trawling. Allowing increased numbers of the large spawning fish found in these fishing refuges to be caught will further cripple species recovery in the future.

“These giveaways by NMFS due to industry pressure are the kind of risky-short-term decision-making that has crashed groundfish populations and wreaked havoc on New England’s coastal fishing economies for too long. We can do better,” said Fleming.

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.