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September 9, 2009

Mid-Atlantic lawsuit targets NMFS' history of flawed data

Even before New England groundfishermen began howling last week, scallopers all along the East Coast and Mid-Atlantic fishing interests were protesting the federal government's continuing use of erroneous catch histories to establish fishermen's earning potential under a new regulatory format.

A multiple plaintiff lawsuit brought on behalf of small boat scallopers against the National Marine Fisheries Service in U.S. District Court in Trenton, N.J., alleges that "poor data quality is a fatal flaw in Amendment 11," which converts the lucrative scallop fishery to the catch share model next year.

The process of putting a total allowable catch on scallops and subdividing that whole into catch shares requires NMFS to determine by past catch history which permit-holding boats qualify to work in the limited-access, catch-share system, which is the top fisheries adaptation to come from the Obama administration. The format is similar to the system being implemented for New England next year.

The bulk of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit work out of ports in New York, New Jersey and Maryland and are contesting how only 10 percent of the scallop bounty is being distributed by the governing NMFS. The bulk of the catch is to be distributed to that port's big boats.

The plantiffs' attorney, Patrick Flanigan cites a March 1, 2006 set of minutes from a NMFS committee meeting on data quality problems affecting the scallop amendment that contains damaging admissions.

At one point, the committee discussed "continuously discovering ... many errors in vessel trip reports and dealer data-sets" that were beyond the NMFS ability to correct or factor into accurate catch histories.

"We have no expertise or time for correcting these errors," the committee wrote.

At the same time, it also acknowledged that "obviously, in order to determine the participants of limited entry, to set total allowable catches and/or allocate trips or pounds to the general category vessels based on passed history, we need to have accurate data."

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