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December 26, 2010

Enviro group sues NOAA from opposite angle

The environmental advocacy group Oceana has urged the federal courts to force the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to plug what the organization contends are gaping holes in the groundfish management regimen that includes the "catch shares" format now being used in New England.

But, unlike legal challenges filed by the cities of Gloucester, New Bedford and other fishing interests, Oceana is charging the NOAA system is too lax, allowing bycatch to go unrecorded and overfishing unpenalized.

Bycatch, a byproduct of commercial fishing in a mixed stock system such as the groundfishery of the Northwest Atlantic, represents fish accidentally brought up by fishermen targeting another species, and is one of Oceana's hot button issues; another is trawling.

In a complaint filed with the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., Oceana alleges that NOAA has failed to meet the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act's 2006 reauthorization which, for the first time, required hard catch limits and "accountability measures" when limits are exceeded.

The complaint was filed soon after the NOAA and its New England Fishery Management Council completed work on Amendment 16, the polarizing management scheme that has merged the catch share system with tight catch limits.

Under the new system, which began May 1, fishermen are allocated "shares" of a total allowable catch for each stock, but are encouraged to buy, sell of trade their shares among themselves or with larger corporations or outside investment interests.

The system has a track record of shifting economic clout into the most powerful hands, while driving out many of the smaller boat businesses. And that system, coupled with many catch limits set well below last year's landings, triggered calls for the Obama administration to acknowledge the crisis and provide additional fish to catch as a form of relief.

Two industry suits unrelated to the Oceana suit, have challenged the government's motives in approving Amendment 16, arguing the system was designed to provide windfalls for the biggest businesses, while converting the fishery into a commodities market that benefits favored and politically influential groups. One of those lawsuits is the one that includes Gloucester and New Bedford as plaintiffs and challenges the legality and constitutionality of Amendment 16

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