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Environmental group sues after Trump administration scraps effort to protect West Coast sea animals

Lily, a bottlenose dolphin, swims in the new exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011, in Atlanta. (David Goldman / AP)
Lily, a bottlenose dolphin, swims in the new exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011, in Atlanta. (David Goldman / AP)
By Dan Weikel Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES – An environmental group has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s withdrawal of proposed limits on the number of endangered whales, dolphins and sea turtles that can be killed or injured by sword-fishing nets on the West Coast.

Oceana Inc., which lodged the case late Wednesday in Los Angeles, alleges that the government violated required procedures for rescinding the proposed caps that had been recommended in 2015 by the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Named as defendants in the U.S. District Court case are Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“The withdrawal of this important protection for whales, sea turtles and other species is plainly illegal,” said Mariel Combs, Oceana’s attorney. “The law requires the fisheries service to respect the fishery management council’s expertise in managing fisheries.”

The proposed caps applied to endangered fin, humpback and sperm whales; short-finned pilot whales and common bottlenose dolphins; as well as endangered leatherback sea turtles, loggerhead sea turtles, olive ridley sea turtles and green sea turtles.

If any two endangered whales or sea turtles were killed or seriously injured within a two-year period, the drift gill-net fishery for swordfish would be closed for up to two years.

The fishery also would be shut down if any combination of four short-finned pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins were seriously hurt or killed within a two-year period.

The administration withdrew the pending rule in June, stating the costs to the sword-fishing industry outweighed the benefits and that other protections have dramatically reduced the number of endangered marine mammals and turtles trapped in gill nets.

“We very carefully considered the pros and cons of the hard caps, and we concluded that they would not yield the benefits that everyone had hoped,” said Michael Milstein, a NOAA spokesman. “We do not see a benefit in adopting a new regulation that duplicates limits already in place.”

Oceana alleges that Secretary Ross did not determine that the proposed limits were inconsistent with the fishery management plan – a potential violation of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which dictates the process for considering regulations recommended by fishery management councils.

The lawsuit also contends that Ross violated the Administrative Procedures Act, which prohibits actions that are capricious, arbitrary, an abuse of discretion or illegal.

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