Feds seek dismissal of lawsuit over extended red snapper season

U.S. officials accused of allowing red snapper to be overfished in the Gulf of Mexico have called on a federal judge to enter a summary judgement in their case, saying the environmental organizations suing them have a moot point.

The rule challenged by Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund to extend the recreational fishing season has already expired, said Jeffrey Wood, the acting assistant attorney general for the Environmental and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Wood also claims the federal court has no jurisdiction over the case.

“Even if the court were to find it has jurisdiction, the only appropriate course at this juncture is to remand to the agency for further action consistent with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act,” Wood argued in a 13 October filing.

The two organizations filed suit against Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service in July, a month after officials added 39 more days to the recreational fishing season. 

The motion for judgement comes after the plaintiffs released documentation they said show federal officials knew they were acting in a way that would lead to overfishing and potentially hurt commercial fishing interests.

In one of the memos from Earl Comstock, the director of Office of Policy and Strategic Planning for Secretary Ross, noted that extending the fishing season from three days to 42 would bring a lawsuit, either from conservation groups or commercial interests. It also, however, would force Congress to act to prevent an across-the-board catch limit for the 2018 season.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves (R-Louisiana) has since filed a bill that would extend recreational access from nine miles out to 25 miles, while allowing Gulf states to establish their own red snapper seasons within that area. 

Comstock also cites in his memo that the Gulf states disagree with NMFS stock estimates and that extending the federal season would reset the relationship between state and federal agencies.

Meredith Moore, Ocean Conservancy’s fish conservation program director, said federal officials would have better off bringing together all parties to find more funding to improve data collection. 

 “Instead, they are playing a game of chicken with Congress,” she said earlier this month. “They have manufactured a crisis in the fishery by allowing so much overfishing that now everyone could get hurt next year. The Department of Commerce would have you believe that the only way out of this situation is to weaken the laws that keep our fisheries sustainable. We disagree. And that’s why our court case is so important – we want to chart the course for real sustainability, better data, successful rebuilding, stable and profitable fishing businesses, and good days on the water for generations to come.”

However, Wood, in his motion to dismiss, claims the order to extend the season was a “one-time action,” and even if the court ruled for the plaintiffs, all he says the court can do is offer an advisory opinion without real action.

“Given the dynamic nature of fishery management any myriad of factors could affect the appropriate season length or other management limitations in the coming years,” he said. “A generic order enjoining NMFS from taking ‘similar action’ in hypothetical future agency actions boils down to an impermissible request for an ‘obey the law’ order.”


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