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FRA sues feds over new Gulf grouper rules!

The Fishing Rights Alliance (FRA), a group of anglers, divers and fishing-related business owners, has filed a federal lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) seeking to block new Gulf of Mexico grouper rules on grounds that the federal agency has violated Congressional mandates.

The FRA, a non-profit fishing conservation organization with members in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, filed the lawsuit in the Tampa Division of U.S. District Court on May 18 – the same day new grouper rules took effect.

The lawsuit seeks to stop new rules from being enforced until the NMFS complies with its duties contained in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006 (MSA), the primary law governing marine fisheries in the U.S.

Under the MSA, NMFS has the responsibility to manage U.S. marine fisheries in federal waters (beyond 9 nautical miles) of the Gulf of Mexico.

The federal agency recently approved the 462-page Amendment 30B, which is the subject of the suit, establishing a recreational grouper aggregate bag limit of four (4) fish per day.

Within the aggregate bag limit, no more than two (2) gag grouper and no more than two (2) red grouper may be caught. It also includes a recreational closed season for all shallow-water grouper from Feb. 1 through March 31 each year.

The suit claims that the NMFS has failed to meet Congressional mandates calling on it to replace and upgrade the outdated and admittedly “fatally flawed” Marine

Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey (MRFSS) program, which gathers fishing-related data by dock interviews and random telephone surveys and uses the data as the basis for new rules.

“This lawsuit was made necessary because NMFS failed to respect the Congressional mandate to base its decisions on scientifically-valid information. The MRFSS program has been recognized as fatally flawed for a number of years,” said Dennis O’Hern, the FRA’s founder and executive director.

“The MRFSS was not designed to provide real-time data to determine whether a quota is reached. In 2006, Congress found the MRFSS was flawed and required the NMFS to take very specific actions to correct it by Jan. 1, 2009. The fundamental flaw in 30B is that the NMFS wants the power and flexibility to close fisheries without meeting the preconditions Congress has imposed on such an expansive power.”

In the lawsuit, the FRA asks that rules be put on hold until the NMFS can comply with its duties to collect relevant scientifically accurate data and requests the court throw out recent grouper stock assessments produced by the “fatally flawed” MRFSS and based on “wildly erroneous dead discard data.”

“This lawsuit is designed to assist NMFS in upgrading the data-gathering tools as soon as possible so that fishing regulations will be based on the best information possible,” O’Hern added. “The economic and social adversity suffered by Gulf Coast residents and tourism the past 18 months is defied by MRFSS estimates showing we have been fishing at near-record levels since 2006. MRFSS data is contradicted by all economic indicators, from boat, bait and tackle sales to foreclosure and unemployment rates, yet

MRFSS figures will be used as ‘best available science’. This cannot be allowed to continue.”

Pinellas lawyer Craig Berman of the FRA’s “Shark Tank,” a group of lawyers that won the FRA’s red grouper lawsuit, is lead counsel. To join the FRA, contact O’Hern at (727) 692-6902 or via email at [email protected]