Oceana, the maritime environmental group that successfully sued NOAA Fisheries in 2011 over its bycatch rules, is challenging the federal regulator of the nation's fisheries over its newest bycatch rule for the Northeast region.

Oceana again sued NOAA Fisheries on Wednesday, claiming the current bycatch reporting rule finalized last month for the region -- in part, as a response to Oceana's earlier legal victory -- is underfunded, uniformly inadequate for providing accurate information and in violation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The 43-page lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., claims the new bycatch rule "leaves loopholes that would guarantee that observer coverage will never meet its performance standards, ultimately failing to fix current insufficiently low levels of monitoring in the region," Oceana said.

The group's lawsuit said NOAA's new Statistical Bycatch Reporting Method (SBRM) "fails to address the fundamental legal flaws" identified in its previous lawsuit and "effectively doubles down on the Fisheries Service's decade-long practice of under-funding and marginalizing its bycatch monitoring systems."

That under-funding, Oceana said, impedes NOAA Fisheries' ability to generate statistically reliable data needed to assess the impact of bycatch on individual fisheries.

The lawsuit draws a direct connection between faulty bycatch monitoring and overfishing. It specifically targets NOAA Fisheries' bycatch monitoring performance in New England and among the Northeast multispecies groundfish fleet.

"New England in particular has been plagued for decades by lax monitoring and overfishing," said Oceana Assistant General Counsel Eric Bilsky. "The failure to monitor catch and enforce catch limits is in part responsible for the collapse of the New England groundfish fishery, including the historically important Atlantic cod populations of the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank." 

Oceana also criticized NOAA Fisheries for its failure to conduct an environmental impact statement to accurately assess "the significant, direct, indirect and cumulative impacts" of the monitoring program.

"Unfortunately, these flaws undermine rather than advance the goals established by Congress when it first directed the Fisheries Service to establish a standardized bycatch reporting methodology almost 20 years ago," the lawsuit charged. "As a result, the Court must . . . vacate and remand the SBRM Amendment and final rule."

NOAA Fisheries, through a spokesman, declined comment on the Oceana lawsuit.

The newly filed lawsuit means NOAA Fisheries is fighting battles over bycatch and monitoring on numerous fronts.

The federal agency has been roundly criticized for its plans to shift the cost of at-sea monitoring -- estimated to be $600-$700 per day per boat monitored -- to the groundfishermen in August because it says it no longer will have the funds to pay for it.

NOAA Fisheries also is under fire from the New England lobster industry for its plans to substantially expand its Northeast Fisheries Observer Program -- in part to conform with new bycatch reporting requirements that stem from Oceana's legal victory in 2011.  

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT and check out his blog, Glosta Daily, on gloucestertimes.com

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