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Commercial fishing group battles lawsuit


FREEDOM ENC - 11/05/2002

The N.C. Fisheries Association has agreed to intervene on behalf of the National Marine Fisheries Service in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups that claim the agency has failed to control fishing to protect whales, dolphin and other marine mammals.

"There were fisheries from all over the country that were implicated in the suit including just about every fishery that we're involved with in this state," said NCFA President Jerry Schill.

The lawsuit has the potential to adversely affect the
gill net, trawl, long haul, crab pot, pound net and beach seine fisheries, Schill said.

Sylvia Liu, senior attorney with Oceana, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said the purpose of the legal action is to get NMFS to comply with the law.

"We definitely are not trying to shut down any fishery through this lawsuit," Liu said.

The environmental groups are trying to force NMFS to complete a report to Congress that was required in 1998 and to convene teams to find ways to reduce marine mammal interactions with fishing gear, Liu said.

In August, Idyllwild, Calif.-based Center for Biological Diversity, Forest Knolls, Calif.-based Turtle Island Restoration Network and Washington, D.C.-based Oceana filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The lawsuit claims that NMFS has failed to comply with requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.

According to the lawsuit, 1994 amendments to the act require NMFS within seven years to regulate commercial fisheries to reduce incidental deaths and serious injury of marine mammals to insignificant levels approaching zero.

The April 30, 2001, deadline has past and NMFS has failed to meet the mandate for 57 marine mammal stocks nationwide including 16 covered in an Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico 2001 final stock assessment report, the lawsuit claims.

Some commercial fishing trade groups in Alaska and the Northwest have already filed petitions to intervene in the lawsuit. Schill said he expects others on the East Coast to follow.

Schill said the environmental groups are fighting the commercial fishermen's intervention.

Liu said that was not exactly accurate.

"We don't think that they've met the legal requirements," Liu said.

To intervene in the lawsuit, the groups must show a legally protected interest. Since the lawsuit aims only to get NMFS to comply with an existing law, that interest applies to everyone, she said.

Oceana is not opposed to the groups intervening, she said.

"We've basically told the judge that if the judge lets them in, we're happy to have them in to talk about the issues," Liu said.

Liu confirmed that Oceana has begun informal discussions with the government and provided an initial offer for a settlement agreement. She would not discuss the contents of the offer.

In an Oct. 29 statement posted on the Oceana Web site, Oceana's Pacific Region Director Jim Ayers said the group has discussed with United Fishermen of Alaska
officials the possibility of dropping the lawsuit in return for, among other things, a federally-funded observer program to monitor marine mammal impacts in Alaska.

Schill said he has had initial discussions with attorneys in Washington regarding intervening in the lawsuit, and NCFA will be sending out information to affected fishermen, asking for help with funding for the legal costs of the effort.