TRANSCRIPTS - Janis Searles
Searles is a staff attorney with the Earth Justice Legal Defense
Fund in Juneau, Alaska.
Why have the conservation groups you are representing challenge
the National Marine Fisheries Service management regime regarding
trawl fisheries in Alaskan water?
has been a long-time concern on the part of conservationists about
the North Pacific ecosystem in general, and specifically Steller
sea lions. Theyve declined by over 80 percent in the last
few decades and at the same time that the Steller sea lions have
been declining, the agencys been allowing more and more trawling
to get concentrated in time and in space, and particularly in designated
Steller sea lion critical habitat.
NMFS has done some kind of a dispersal effort, both in terms of
time and in area with the pollock fishery, and this is not sufficient?
The agency has
taken some measures with regard to the pollock fishery which compromises
about half of the overall ground fish fisheries in the northern
Pacific, but they have yet to take a look at all the fisheries put
together, and so the question is, is the pollock mitigation adequate
with regard to pollock alone? And we dont think so, and the
science, we dont think says that, but then you have the broader
question: when you put pollock together with jack and mackerel together
with Pacific cod, together with all the other ground fish fisheries,
what does that mean for Steller sea lions? And thats a question
the agency has yet to answer.
Some biologists think the impact on the Steller sea lion population
is not just due to the result of pollock fisheries he agrees
with you but its the result of a complex of fisheries.
I can respond
to one point about that: looking at the overall global biomass,
or the overall exploitation rate really doesnt answer the
questions for Steller sea lions. Its not How many fish
are in the sea? Its where you take them, when you take
them and how you take them, and so if you just look at the global
exploitation rate, you miss a big part of the picture. If they had
done that with pollock, you would have missed the concentration
and critical habitat, you would have missed these pulse fisheries
that happen over a very short period of time and take out massive
amounts of fish very quickly, and so its only one part of
the puzzle. Its more than just How is the overall fish
stock doing? Its how, when and where they are taking
What do the groups that youre representing think NMFS ought
to be doing to be doing this right?
been happening over time is the agency has continued to allow more
and more fishing in critical habitat without asking and answering
these fundamental questions about what that fishing means for North
Pacific ecosystem as a whole and for Steller sea lions in particular.
And what wed like to see, and what the law requires, is that
you understand the impacts of actions that you authorize and before
you take those actions. So instead of Steller sea lions bearing
the burden of proof, it needs to be the fisheries that bear the
burden of proof.
Over time what
the agency has done is assume that fishing will go forward and allowed
fishing to get more and more concentrated in critical times of the
year and in Steller sea lion critical habitat. Instead, we should
determine first what level of fishing is acceptable for Steller
sea lions and for the ecosystem as a whole and then only permit
that level of fishing to go forward.
From the industrys
perspective they shouldnt be restricted from fishing until
it can be proved that they are the cause of the decline of Steller
sea lions. From the conservation perspective the proper thing to
do is to not do something that maybe damaging until you understand
what its effects are. Evidence indicates that trawling poses
a real threat to Steller sea lions, and it needs to be halted until
the agency has done its job and complied with federal law
and figured out the boundaries of those threats.
How does the precautionary principle basically flip
the burden of proof?
I guess the
question is, when you dont have absolute proof and
absolute proof is tremendously difficult to come about in a marine
ecosystem who bears the burden? Does fishing need to slow
down and be removed from certain places to protect Steller sea lions,
or do Steller sea lions have to bear the burden of this uncertainty?
The salmon fishery in Alaska is comprised mostly of small, independent
operators. How would you characterize the ground fishery operating
in Alaskan waters?
have a perfectly good answer for that. One of the real frustrations
of this case is we dont have a lot of access to that information.
The pollock trawl fisheries are dominated by the larger catcher
boats and in particular by the larger factory trawlers; definitely
dominated by the larger organized vessels that have a lot of money
and a lot of investment in prosecuting this fishery. They take the
You know, its
a wise decision on their part to put the small people forward, but
when it comes to down to it, you know, on the political side, on
the lobbying side and the council, those guys are sophisticated,
they have a lot of money, they have a lot of lobbyists, they have
a lot of people working for them and its typical big business
Why do you think NMFS hasnt done their homework; done everything
they shouldve been doing to figure out what the impacts from
all these fisheries are on Steller sea lions?
I think the
National Marine Fisheries Service right now is facing somewhat of
an internal conflict and theyre at war with themselves. They
have one division that is the Sustainable Fisheries Division thats
devoted to getting out the fish; they have an Office of Protective
Resources thats charged with protecting marine resources.
And those two mandates are coming into conflict. They have an overall
obligation to preserve the marine ecosystem, but I think what the
National Marine Fisheries Service is facing right now is something
that the Forest Service has gone through.
For years and
years and years they viewed as their primary mission getting out
the cut, getting out the trees. And theyre recognizing more
and more that forests mean a lot more to people. And theyre
trying to provide more and more recreation and other kinds of benefits
for the American public. And the National Marine Fisheries Service
now is sort of facing the same problem. For years and years and
years theyve focused on getting out the fish. And now theyre
having to grapple with the impacts of those choices that they have
made in the past and understanding how those affect other marine
Are the groups that youre representing merely against the
fishing industry or in fact are they really concerned about the
long health of the marine ecosystem, upon which the fisheries ultimately
that I represent are clearly interested overall in having a sustainable
fishery and a healthy ecosystem. The problem is the agency has not
even attempted to ask some of those basic questions of what does
a sustainable fishery look like?
One thing about
the injunction: the injunction didnt say you cant fish
although that was fairly within what we couldve asked
for it just said you cant trawl in designated critical
habitat. And so it was a limited injunction.
involved in this case are not against fishing. Their long-term goal
is to have a sustainable fishery and a healthy ecosystem and in
the long run thats in everyones interest. Thats
in the fishermens interest as well.
Some biologists think that the Steller sea lions are like a canary
in a coal mine basically its a sign that theres
something wrong with the way were managing these fisheries.
changed radically over the past two decades. Multitude species are
declining; Steller sea lions are listed as endangered; the fisheries
have gone from being foreign fisheries to joint venture fisheries
to domestic fisheries; theyve concentrated in time and space;
huge changes have occurred and NMFS hasnt taken a comprehensive
look at the effects of authorizing all those fisheries.
management that was one of the other pieces of this lawsuit.
Its not just Steller sea lions; its not just Pollock;
its not just jack and mackerel; its not single species/single
species. Its the changes that have occurred in the past two
decades are huge and the agencys never stepped back and thought,
Well, does our management system make sense, given everything
thats changed from 78-81 until now? And so thats
one of the things they have to do.
Some fishery managers at NMFS complain that the suits brought on
by environmental organizations are taking up a whole lot of their
time. And she feels that theyre overwhelmed by them to the
point where they have to devote too much of their energy responding
to these suits rather than doing the work theyre supposed
to be doing. Can you respond to that?
There are a
couple of things to note there. First is that the industry sues
the agency a lot more than conservation groups do. Second is that
the only reason why were creating work for them is because
theyre not complying with the law. If we had lost the lawsuit,
if they had been complying with the law, if theyd been doing
what they were supposed to be doing all along, they wouldnt
be in this crunch where theyre trying desperately to come
into compliance with the law. Thats all the lawsuit requires
follow the law.
I think one
really basic thing is people look at environmentalists and view
them as trouble-makers, and fundamentally what were trying
to do is a very basic thing, and thats to require a federal
agency charged with managing a public resource to comply with federal
law. Its not an unusual thing; we all have to comply with
the law everyday, and that is ALL were trying to get the agency
One other thing,
reflecting that were not against fishermen: I think the plaintiffs
would be willing to support some financial assistance to the smaller
boats that are being hurt, or are potentially being hurt by this
injunction. Its part of the broader picture. We recognize
that for some smaller boats there may be some adverse impacts and
were concerned about that and wed be willing to support
some financial measures to help them.
One of the
outcomes of the litigation is that the National Marine Fisheries
Service is getting a lot more money for research, and thats
something that we think should have been happening all along, but
it is one of the positive outcomes here that the agency will
have more resources at its disposal to ask and answer some of these
Do you want to say anything about this pristine environment, compared
to New England for instance, since the fisheries here are still
in relatively good shape?
I think theres
a tremendous opportunity in Alaska to do the right thing. We dont
want to repeat the mistakes that have been made in other fisheries.
Our position is that sea lions are critical and we dont have
a lot of time with regard to Steller sea lions. Alaska is a little
bit different than the other fisheries because the fisheries stock
themselves. There certainly are some problems with some stocks but
it doesnt quite reach the magnitude of fish problems of other
places. The problem up here is integrating fishing with the rest
of the ecosystem and making sure that its sustainable for
everybody, including the marine mammals.