The United States District Court for the District of Alaska has ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) violated the law when it restructured the observer program for the North Pacific groundfish fisheries.
The restructured program doubled the daily cost of observer coverage, leading to a sharp reduction of human observers on certain high-volume trawlers that are responsible for significant bycatch of salmon and Pacific halibut in the Gulf of Alaska. Trawlers are responsible for essentially all of the salmon bycatch and 87 percent of the halibut bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska.
The Court ruled that NMFS arbitrarily ignored the potential impacts of increased costs and lower observer coverage.
In his decision, Judge H. Russel Holland writes:
“NMFS must prepare a supplemental EA [Environmental Assessment] that addresses the question of when data being gathered by the restructured Observer Program ceases to be reliable, or of high quality, because the rate of observer coverage is too low.”
Read the order.
The lawsuit challenging the restructured observer program was brought by The Boat Company, a not-for-profit corporation whose mission to protect and conserve Alaska’s fisheries is supported by a sport fishing and ecotourism operation based in Sitka and Juneau, Alaska.
“Today's decision is an important step toward conservation of salmon and halibut resources and a healthier ecosystem,” said Captain Joel Hanson, Director of Conservation Programs at The Boat Company.“Sound fisheries management requires collecting the best available scientific information, and that means full observer coverage on the high-volume trawlers that account for the most catch and bycatch.”
“As a result of this decision, NMFS must reassess the observer program to ensure that it provides the reliable data necessary to combat the serious problem of salmon and halibut bycatch,” said Colin O’Brien, Attorney for Earthjustice.