Groups sue over marine mammal bycatch

Posted: Wednesday, August 28, 2002

KODIAK (AP) -- A coalition of conservation groups has filed suit in federal court against the National Marine Fisheries Service, saying the agency is violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act by not taking steps to reduce bycatch in Alaska commercial fisheries.

But federal officials say there really isn't a problem with mortality of marine mammals in commercial fisheries in Alaska.

Generally, said Doug DeMaster, director of the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Washington, the stocks are large, and the way that people fish does not result in a lot of mortality. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the parent of the NMFS.

The conservation groups filed suit in federal court in California Aug. 13. Plaintiffs are the Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network, and Oceana.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare NMFS in violation of the law for failing to develop and implement marine mammal take reduction plans for fisheries which NMFS has designated as frequently or occasionally interacting with ''strategic'' marine mammals.

A ''strategic'' marine mammal species is one listed as depleted under the marine mammal act, or as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Alaska fisheries involved Bristol Bay salmon, Cook Inlet salmon, Aleutian Islands and Alaska Peninsula salmon, Prince William Sound salmon, and Southeast Alaska salmon.

According to plaintiff attorney George J. Mannina, the plaintiffs want the court to order NMFS to develop and implement take reduction plans. Mannina said plaintiffs are also asking the court to direct the fisheries service to complete a report required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act on the progress being made by all commercial fisheries in achieving the goal of reducing marine mammal incidental mortality and serious injury to levels approaching zero. That report was due in April 1998.

''We asked the agency to develop a take reduction team: diverse stakeholder groups that work together to try to reduce the catching of marine mammals in commercial fishing gear,'' said Charlotte Gray, marine wildlife scientist with Oceana. ''That is the aim of the complaint and of the lawsuit, to get these species addressed through take reduction teams and plan to reduce the mortality of these animals.''

NMFS Lab Director Robert Otto said the lawsuit was counterproductive.

''It is a matter of taking people that would otherwise be applying their minds to solving the problems of marine mammals, rather than having to spend all of their time and thousands of dollars in travel dealing with lawsuits,'' he said.

''It is very unlikely that anything will ever come out of this that is significant, but they will have won a moral victory; they forced us to do this. The bottom line is, a lot of this stuff is probably counterproductive relative to the environment and the resources involved.''

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