March 2014 – Bottom trawlers in the Gulf of Alaska catch, kill and discard huge numbers of King salmon and halibut each year. Removing this so-called ‘bycatch’ from the oceans inflicts untold harm on the marine ecosystem. It also hurts directed harvesters, i.e. fishing men and women who use much more selective hook-and-line methods to target these species for small-scale commercial, subsistence and sport purposes.
The only way to determine just how much bycatch is being wasted every year by bottom trawlers is to require them to carry independent observers onboard to monitor their net-hauls and count discarded fish. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is a federal agency that does, in fact, require trawlers in the Gulf of Alaska to carry observers, but only on a small number of trips each year. Currently, observed trawl trips account for only about 15% of the total number of trawl trips each year, too infrequent to give scientists confidence in the accuracy of bycatch estimates. Without reliable estimates, fisheries managers cannot make scientifically sound management and conservation decisions.
In December of 2012, The Boat Company filed a lawsuit challenging NMFS’s observer program on the grounds that it fails to meet the standards mandated by Congress through the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). Our attorneys filed a motion and memorandum for summary judgment, explaining that NMFS is not only in violation of applicable MSA requirements, but is also running afoul of rules imposed by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Our briefing requests: 1) that the court vacates a recent NMFS decision to implement an new observer deployment plan that fails (yet again) to provide adequate observer coverage onboard trawl vessels in the Gulf of Alaska, and 2) that the court recommend NMFS establish a legally adequate standardized bycatch reporting methodology.
As of the time of this blog’s posting, Judge Russell Holland, U.S. District Court, District of Alaska, is scheduled to hear oral arguments from the parties in April 2014 before rendering a decision.
The Boat Company wants NMFS to adopt an adequate observer coverage program for bottom trawlers throughout the Gulf of Alaska. After all, in the waters off California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, bottom trawlers are required to have observers onboard at all times. With all other trawlers along the Pacific Coast having 100% of all fishing trips observed, NMFS needs to develop an observer program in the Gulf of Alaska that is comparable. They need to put a plan in place that will help ensure our nation’s marine resources are managed sustainably.