A federal judge has upheld the National Marine Fisheries Service’s decision to restrict fishing in the Western Aleutians in order to protect an endangered stock of marine mammals.
The decision is the product of a year-long litigation process in which the State of Alaska, industry groups, and Aleut Enterprise sued NMFS over their efforts to stop the decline of the Steller sea lion population. They say that the closures of the Atka mackerel and Pacific cod fisheries are estimated to cost the industry over $80 million annually and that NMFS’ science doesn’t justify the restrictions. The plaintiffs also argued that NMFS failed to adequately consult the public in this process.
In his opinion, Judge Timothy Burgess stated that he sympathized with plaintiffs, but that ultimately “judges are not scientists” and the court had to defer to NMFS’ technical expertise.
However, the court did conclude that NMFS was in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act by “failing to prepare an environmental impact statement and provide the public with a sufficient opportunity to weigh in on its decision-making process.” As a result, Judge Burgess has ordered NMFS to draft an environmental impact statement, but without vacating their final rule.
Attorney for the Freezer Longline Coalition Ryan Steen says his clients are happy Judge Burgess concluded NFMS did not fulfill its obligation to prepare an environmental impact statement. But he says they’re disappointed with the other findings.
Alaska Assistant Attorney General Brad Meyen agreed with Steen.
Attorneys for the National Marine Fisheries Service could not offer comment at this time.
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