Federal court upholds ruling in anchovy catch-limit lawsuit

Published on
January 22, 2019

A federal judge in California on Friday, 22 January, upheld her decision from last year that claimed NOAA Fisheries did not follow the law when it set the catch limit on an anchovy stock in the state.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh means the agency will need to set a new limit on the central population of northern anchovy. Environmental advocates argued federal officials kept that figure stationary since 2000 and used nearly 30-year-old data in setting it.

“This decision holds [NOAA Fisheries] to fundamental standards intended by Congress, which require the government to sustainably manage our nation’s fisheries for the benefit of both fishermen and dependent species,” said Mariel Combs, an Oceana attorney in a press release.

Oceana filed the suit in November 2016, a month after NOAA Fisheries maintained the 25,000 metric ton (MT) limit. The environmental organization, represented by Earthjustice is the suit, argued that the catch limit was based on a 1991 study that reported a biomass of more than 700,000 metric tons. 

However, in recent years, Oceana argued studies showed the anchovy stock dwindled to somewhere between 15,000 MT and 32,000 MT.

“The Court finds that Plaintiff prevails on the best scientific information available argument and the overfishing argument,” Koh ruled.

One of the arguments federal officials made was that the anchovy stock has been recovering in recent years. An updated estimate from the Farallon Institute last November indicated the 2015 biomass reached 92,100 metric tons and 153,200 MT in 2016. That was the first time in eight years the anchovy biomass exceeded 100,000 MT, according to the institute.

That same study also showed a 2017 estimate of more than 1.1 million MT, the first time in 11 years the stock exceeded 500,000 MT. 

Koh noted, though, that the 2015-2016 figures remain well below the 1991 study used as the benchmark.

With NOAA Fisheries staff currently on furlough due to the government shutdown, it remains unclear when the agency will be able to act on the judge’s ruling, or if the decision will be appealed.

Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director for the California Wetfish Producers Association, told SeafoodSource she was disappointed in Koh’s ruling. She added, however, that the judge did not set a catch limit and ruled that the agency needs to use the best scientific data available to set its limits.

“In any case, there is general agreement, even from Oceana, that the anchovy population has exploded and available data now find the biomass at historic levels,” Steele said.  

Steele also noted that members of the Pacific Fishery Management Council management team will be meeting soon to discuss the next steps in wake of the ruling. 

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