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April 11, 2014

Judge backs NOAA on state's fishing lawsuit

Ruling rejects state's challenges over science, impact

U.S. District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns has ruled in favor of NOAA in the lawsuit Massachusetts filed last year charging that NOAA failed to utilize the best science available when instituting draconian cuts to groundfish catch limits and failed to consider the adverse economic impact of those cuts.

Stearns’ ruling for summary judgment on behalf of NOAA closes the case on the lawsuit initially filed last May by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and joined by New Hampshire last fall as an intervening plaintiff.

The ruling stated that Massachusetts and New Hampshire failed to make a convincing case in any of their challenges under the current standards applied to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service for the methodology and accuracy of the science employed in developing the stock assessments that led to the cuts.

“The Commonwealth has failed to clear the ‘high hurdle’ of proving that NMFS ignored ‘superior or contrary’ scientific information in performing its stock assessments as is required (for) a violation,” Stearns wrote in his opinion.

Fishing advocates yesterday said they found the ruling troubling on several fronts, saying it showed undue deference to the federal regulators on many of the scientific and technical issues and provides NOAA with extraordinary latitude in future applications of the “best science available” mandate.

“In our brief, we cited Justice (Antonin) Scalia’s view that an amount of deference is a permission slip for an arrogation of power,” said Brian Rothschild, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Sustainable Fisheries, which joined the state of Rhode Island in filing amicus briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs. “The problem is that in cases like this, judges are left with really difficult technical decisions. That’s the reason for the deference.”

The 33-page decision by Stearns included at least two passages that indicated the judge leaned heavily on the difference between the “best scientific data available” and the “best scientific data possible,” opting for a more practical embrace of the latter, particularly when considered against the regulatory imperative of urgency.

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