Flaherty v. Bryson, 030912 DCDC, 11-660 (GK)

Docket NºCivil Action 11-660 (GK)
Opinion JudgeGLADYS KESSLER, District Judge.
Party NameMICHAEL S. FLAHERTY, et al., Plaintiffs, v. JOHN BRYSON[1] in his official capacity as Secretary of the Department of Commerce, et al., Defendants.
Case DateMarch 09, 2012
CourtUnited States District Courts, United States District Court (Columbia)

MICHAEL S. FLAHERTY, et al., Plaintiffs,

v.

JOHN BRYSON 1 in his official capacity as Secretary of the Department of Commerce, et al., Defendants.

Civil Action No. 11-660 (GK)

United States District Court, District of Columbia.

March 9, 2012

MEMORANDUM OPINION

GLADYS KESSLER, District Judge.

Plaintiffs Michael S. Flaherty, Captain Alan A. Hastbacka, and the Ocean River Institute bring this suit against Defendants Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ("NOAA"), and the National Marine Fisheries Service ("NMFS"). Plaintiffs allege that Amendment 4 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan violates the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act ("MSA"), 16 U.S.C. §§ 1801 et seq., the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321 et seq., and the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), 5 U.S.C. §§ 702 et seq.

This matter is now before the Court on Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment [Dkt. Nos. 17, 19]. Upon consideration of the Motions, Oppositions, Replies, Oral Argument, Supplemental Briefs, the entire record herein, and for the reasons stated below, Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment is granted in part and denied in part and Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Statutory Background

1. The Magnuson-Stevens Act

Congress first enacted the MSA in 1976 "to take immediate action to conserve and manage the fishery resources found off the coasts of the United States." 16 U.S.C. § 1801(b)(1). The Act provides a "national program" designed "to prevent overfishing, to rebuild overfished stocks, to insure conservation, to facilitate long-term protection of essential fish habitats, and to realize the full potential of the Nation's fishery resources." Id . § 1801(a)(6).

In order to balance the need for "a cohesive national policy and the protection of state interests, " the MSA establishes eight Regional Fishery Management Councils composed of federal officials, state officials, and private parties appointed by the Secretary of Commerce. C&W Fish Co. v. Fox , 931 F.2d 1556, 1557 (D.C. Cir. 1991); 16 U.S.C. § 1852. These councils are responsible for developing fishery management plans ("FMPs") for fisheries in federal waters within the United States Exclusive Economic Zone, which includes ocean water from three to two hundred miles offshore. Id . § 1853.

Each council must prepare and submit to NMFS2 an FMP and any amendments that may become necessary "for each fishery under its authority that requires conservation and management." Id . § 1852(h)(1). FMPs must include the "conservation and management measures" that are "necessary and appropriate for the conservation and management of the fishery, to prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, and to protect, restore, and promote the long-term health and stability of the fishery."3 Id . § 1853(a)(1)(A). FMPs must also be consistent with the ten "National Standards" provided for in the MSA, as well as all other provisions of the MSA, and "any other applicable law." Id . § 1853(a)(1)(C); see also id. § 1851 (setting forth National Standards).

Once a council has developed a plan, NMFS must review the plan to determine whether it comports with the ten National Standards and other applicable law. Id . § 1854(a)(1)(A). Next, after a period of notice and comment, NMFS must "approve, disapprove, or partially approve a plan or amendment, " depending on whether the plan or amendment is consistent with the Standards and applicable law. Id . § 1854(a)(3). Even if NMFS disapproves the proposed FMP or amendment, it may not rewrite it. That responsibility remains with the council, except under specifically defined circumstances. Id . §§ 1854(a)(4), (c). If NMFS approves the plan or does not express disapproval within 30 days, the FMP becomes effective. Id . § 1854(a)(3).

At the beginning of 2007, Congress re-authorized and amended the MSA. Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006 ("MSRA"), P.L. 109-479, 120 Stat. 3575 (2007). One of the goals of the MSRA was to "set[] a firm deadline to end overfishing in America." 2007 U.S.C.C.A.N. S83, S83. To accomplish this purpose, Congress added provisions to the MSA calling for science based limits on total fish caught in each fishery.

The amended MSA requires the regional councils to add to all FMPs mechanisms for setting the limits, termed Annual Catch Limits ("ACLs"), on the amount of fish caught and accountability measures ("AMs") for ensuring compliance with the ACLs. 16 U.S.C. § 1853(a)(15). These limits and accountability measures must take effect "in fishing year 2011" for most fisheries, including the Atlantic herring fishery.4 Pub. L. No. 109-479, § 104(b), 120 Stat. 3575, 3584.

2. The National Environmental Policy Act

Congress enacted NEPA in order "to use all practicable means, consistent with other essential considerations of national policy, to improve and coordinate Federal plans, functions, programs, and resources to the end that the Nation may... fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations." 42 U.S.C. § 4331(b). To accomplish that goal, NEPA requires all federal agencies to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement ("EIS") whenever they propose "major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment." Id . § 4332(2)(C).

To determine whether an EIS must be prepared, the agency must first prepare an environmental assessment ("EA"). 40 C.F.R. § 1501.4(b). An EA must "[b]riefly provide sufficient evidence and analysis for determining whether to prepare an environmental impact statement or a finding of no significant impact." Id . § 1508.9(a). Even if the agency performs only an EA, it must still briefly discuss the need for the proposal, the alternatives, and the environmental impacts of the proposed action and the alternatives. Id . § 1508.9(b). If the agency determines, after preparing an EA, that a full EIS is not necessary, it must prepare a Finding of No Significant Impact ("FONSI") setting forth the reasons why the action will not have a significant impact on the environment. Id . §§ 1501.4(e), 1508.13.

B. Factual Background

Plaintiffs challenge Amendment 4 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan, developed by the New England Fishery Management Council (the "Council"). 76 Fed. Reg. 11373 (Mar. 2, 2011). Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) have been managed through the Atlantic Herring FMP since January 10, 2001. Administrative Record ("AR") 5578.

Atlantic herring inhabit the Atlantic Ocean off of the East coast of the United States and Canada, ranging from North Carolina to the Canadian Maritime Provinces. Id. at 6091. Atlantic herring can grow to about 15.6 inches in length and live 15-18 years. Id. at 6092. Atlantic herring play a vital role in the Northwest Atlantic ecosystem, serving as a "forage species, " i.e. food, for a number of other fish, marine mammals, and seabirds. Id. at 6111.

Human beings also hunt Atlantic herring. Fishermen and women predominantly catch Atlantic herring using midwater trawl gear, paired midwater trawls, and purse seines. AR 6146. To do this, boats working alone or in tandem drag nets through the water scooping up fish as they go. Not surprisingly, these nets snare large numbers of other fish and marine wildlife at the same time. Id. at 6146-48, 6170-80.

Of particular concern to Plaintiffs are four species, often caught incidentally with Atlantic herring, collectively referred to as "river herring": (1) blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis), (2) alewive (Alosa pseudoharengus), (3) American shad (Alosa sapidissima), and (4) hickory shad (Alosa mediocris). See Pls.' Mot. 1. River herring are apparently so-called because they are anadromous-that is, they spawn in rivers but otherwise spend most of their lives at sea, whereas Atlantic herring spend their entire lives at sea. Id . It is undisputed that river herring play a similar role to Atlantic herring, providing forage for large fish and mammals, including cod, striped bass, bluefin tuna, sharks, marine mammals, and seabirds. Id. at 1, 8; see also AR 763-64. The Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan, as updated by Amendment 4, provides ACLS and AMs for Atlantic herring but not for river herring.

C. Procedural Background

On May 8, 2008, NMFS published a Notice of Intent, announcing that the Council would be preparing Amendment 4 to the Atlantic Herring FMP as well as an Environmental Impact Statement. AR 5577. The Notice explained that the MSRA required that ACLs and AMs be established by 2011 for all fisheries not subject to overfishing. Id. at 5578. Because the Atlantic herring fishery had not been determined to be subject to overfishing, Amendment 4 was "necessary to update the Herring FMP in a manner... consistent with the new requirements of the MSRA" and was required to be in place by 2011. Id.

The Notice also indicated measures under consideration by the Council. Specifically, the Notice stated that Amendment 4 might address as many as five objectives:

1. To implement measures to improve the long-term monitoring of catch (landings and bycatch) in the herring fishery;

2. To implement ACLs and AMs consistent with the MSRA;

3. To implement other management measures as necessary to ensure compliance with the new provisions of the MSRA;

4. To develop a sector allocation process or other LAPP ["Limited Access Privilege Program"] for the herring fishery; and

5. In the context of objectives 1-4 (above), to consider the health of the herring resource and the important role of herring as a forage fish and a predator fish throughout its range.

Id.

However, on December 28, 2009, NMFS and the Council changed course. At that time, NMFS issued a second Notice of Intent...

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