Group threatens federal lawsuit to seek protections for black teatfish

Published on
July 6, 2021
A black teatfish sea cucumber.

A nonprofit conservation group has given notice to NOAA Fisheries that it plans to file a lawsuit after the federal agency did not respond in a timely manner to a petition to list black teatfish sea cucumbers as either an endangered or threatened species.

In May 2020, The Center for Biological Diversity submitted a petition the U.S. government. Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the agency had 12 months to make a determination.

The letter, dated 29 June, 2021, gives the agency and the U.S. Department of Commerce a 60-day notice before the lawsuit is filed.

“We’re asking the Biden administration to take a stand for sea cucumbers, as a critical but beleaguered part of coral reef ecosystems, before these amazing creatures are eaten to extinction,” Sarah Uhlemann, an international program director for the organization, said. “By protecting black teatfish under U.S. law, we can ensure we don’t contribute to their disturbingly rapid decline.”

According to the notice letter, which was sent to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and recently appointed NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Janet Coit, scientists estimate the species population has declined by upwards of 70 percent over 80 percent of its range.

Conservationists say the fish face threats of overfishing due to its large size and habitat, which is in shallow waters. Teatfish also mature late, and recent surveys show no juveniles in the biomass – a warning sign for possible extinction.

While the black teatfish reside in reefs off the Indian Ocean between India and Africa and is considered a delicacy in Asia, the species has also grown in popularity in the states. A release by the center noted U.S. imports by weight have increased by 36 times over the past decade.

Listing the black teatfish as endangered would lead to a ban on imports to and sales within the U.S.

“The delay in ESA protection denies the black teatfish essential legal protections and conservation measures that will minimize the key threat to its survival,” CBD lawyers Miyoko Sakashita and C.J. Biggs wrote in the letter. “The ESA has a 99 percent success rate in preventing extinction for species under its care. But time is of the essence in conserving endangered species – (NOAA Fisheries) must act immediately to propose threatened or endangered statis for black teatfish.”

NOAA Fisheries received the petition during the Trump Administration. The Biden administration took over in January, with Raimondo confirmed as commerce secretary in March.

Kate Goggin, the acting public affairs director for NOAA Fisheries, told SeafoodSource on Tuesday 6 July that the agency does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation, but added: “We take all litigation seriously and are reviewing the petition carefully.”  

Photo courtesy of Fernando Herranz Martín, GPL via Wikimedia Commons

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