Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Federal Court Upholds Fishing Restrictions to Protect Steller Sea Lions

Federal Judge Timothy Burgess is upholding fishing restrictions put in place to reduce the competition between commercial fisheries and endangered Steller sea lions in the Aleutian Islands.

The US District Court judge announced his decision on March 5 in the case filed by the state of Alaska, Alaska Seafood Cooperative and the Freezer Longline Coalition against administrator Jane Lubchenco of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The court found that the National Marine Fisheries Service based its decision on good science and reiterated that the protections currently in place are both justified and necessary.

The court has also ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to prepare an environmental impact statement by March 2, 2014 to allow for more public input. In its summary judgment, the court concluded that NMFS violated the National Environmental Policy Act in failing to prepare an EIS, as opposed to an environmental assessment, and did not provide the public with a sufficient opportunity for review and comment on the environmental assessment.

“Given that NEPA is a procedural statute, thee violations are significant regardless of whether they affected the outcome of NMFS’s decision making process,” the court ruled. The NEPA violations “caused irreparable harm to the plaintiffs’ and the public’s procedural rights which cannot be remedied through damages,” the judge said. “The harm is exacerbated by the fact that the restrictions may continue indefinitely.”

The environmental organization Oceana, meanwhile, hailed the Burgess decision to uphold the sea lion protections. “The tide is turning for Aleutian sea lions,” said Susan Murray, Oceana’s senior director, Pacific. Murray said the decision “can serve as an example of how to move away from single species money fish management and toward ecosystem-based approach that takes into account the needs of apex predators in our oceans.”

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