Alaska crabbers allowed to join NOAA in defending contested traceability rule against NFI, Trident Seafoods

Published on
May 11, 2017

A group of Alaska-based crab harvesters were granted permission by a U.S. district judge on 9 May to intervene as defendants in an ongoing lawsuit filed by the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) – and a handful of other U.S.-based seafood companies, including Trident Seafoods and Pacific Seafood Group – challenging the passage and content of a new seafood traceability rule crafted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other federal regulators. 

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta granted the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers (ABSC) permission to intervene in the suit based on claims from the organization that the new traceability rule could be beneficial to crabbers and ABSC members, and that such parties allegedly have a financial stake in the rule being upheld. According to ABSC, maintaining the traceability rule, otherwise known as the Seafood Import Monitoring Program, would protect the domestic crabbing sector – especially where red king crab is concerned – from competition from illegal Russian crabbing operations.

"If Plaintiffs succeed in vacating the [the Rule], the financial benefits to ABSC's members in excluding illegally caught Russian crab from the U.S. market will be lost, and ABSC's members will continue to face unfair competition and attendant economic losses from imports of illegally harvested crab," claimed ABSC President Kale Garcia in the organization’s 12 April bid to establish “substantial probability” of injury so that it would be permitted to intervene as a defendant in the lawsuit.  

“ABSC has provided evidence that vacatur of the Rule is substantially likely to cause its members to suffer measurable economic harm, which the court could remedy by ruling against Plaintiffs' challenge and thereby permitting the Rule to be implemented,” wrote Judge Mehta in corresponding court documents. “Accordingly, the court concludes ABSC has standing to intervene in this matter.”

NFI and the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue that the Seafood Import Monitoring Program would be a financial detriment to the U.S. seafood industry, potentially rocketing processing costs up to USD 1 billion (EUR 941 million) per year or more from a low of USD 520 million (EUR 489.6 million) per year. Ultimately, the rule was illegally conceived and implemented, according to NFI, and the plaintiffs in the case will continue to argue those points even now that the ABSC has the option to intervene. 

“The practical problems and challenges our members face from this rule and the legal violations associated with its creation do not change based on the decision to allow ABSC to join the suit,” NFI’s Lynsee Fowler told SeafoodSource. “The rule was illegally created and implemented and that’s what we will continue to argue regardless of who the defendants are.”

This latest development means that ABSC now has the ability to join in the legal proceedings moving forward – it does not verify the organization’s claims and arguments within the scope of the case itself, noted Fowler. 

“With this, the judge has simply granted ABSC the ability to join the litigation,” Fowler explained. “While they now have standing to become part of legal process, [Mehta] has not ruled on the validity of their arguments with respect to the case itself.  To date, there have been no rulings on the merits of the case. This is simply a procedural declaration.” 

Oceana, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity also submitted a bid to intervene as defendants in the lawsuit, but their motion was denied by the court.  The current defendants in the lawsuit are NMFS, the U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA and other government agencies. 

NFI, Trident Seafoods, Pacific Seafood Group, Alfa International Seafood, Fortune Fish & Gourmet, Handy Seafood, Libby Hill Seafood Restaurants, the Pacific Seafood Processors Association and the West Coast Seafood Processors Association are all plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed on 6 January.

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