Fishermen in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean sought to exploit the synergy between dolphins and yellowfin tuna and began adopting a fishing method called purse seine fishing. Fishermen using this method inevitably set their nets around dolphins and tuna alike. This fishing method resulted in the deaths of millions of dolphins and prompted a public outcry that eventually resulted in legislation banning the method. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), disallowed the taking of marine mammals designated as “depleted” and further banned importation of fish or fish products caught using technology that resulted in incidental kill or serious injury to marine mammals in excess of U.S. standards. The International Dolphin Conservation Program Act (IDCPA), revised the MMPA to provide new import criteria for tuna products. In the IDCPA, Congress charged the Secretary of the Commerce with drafting implementing regulations, which eventually became the “Interim-Final Rule,” some of the provisions of which are at issue in this case. On February 8, 2000, the plaintiffs (a number of environmental groups, including Defenders of Wildlife) filed suit in the Court of International Trade and the Court denied the plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion. The plaintiffs now appeal. The Court of Appeals dealt with the two following questions: First, the plaintiffs denounce the inconsistency between the IDCPA and the Interim-Final Rule regarding the backdown procedure. Whereas the IDCPA provided that any regulations must “ensur[e] that the backdown procedure ... has begun no later than 30 minutes before sundown,” 16 U.S.C. § 1413(a)(2)(B)(v) the Interim-Final Rule stated that, “the backdown procedure must be completed no later than one-half hour after sundown…” 50 C.F.R. § 216.24(c)(6)(iii). Given the contrasting language, the plaintiffs argued that the Interim-Final Rule was in violation of the authorizing statute. The court concluded that NMFS was authorized to alter the backdown procedure in the IDCPA, since the Interim-Final Rule was drafted in a manner consistent with the IDCP (the international conservation agreement giving rise to the IDCPA). Second, NEPA commands federal agencies to prepare an environmental impact study (EIS) when proposing “major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 4332(2)(c). When it is unclear whether a proposed action will “significantly affect” the environment, the agency prepares an environmental assessment (EA) in order to determine whether preparation of a full EIS is necessary. After preparing an EA in this case, NMFS decided that the Interim-Final Rule would not have a significant impact on the human environment so refrained from preparing an EIS and promulgated the rule. With regard to this charge, the court held that NMFS took a “hard look” at the dolphin mortality problem and the effects of the Interim-Final Rule on the environment, and considered the relevant areas impacted by its regulation. Additionally, according to the court, NMFS reasonably found that the preferred Interim-Final Rule would not have a significant impact on the dolphin stock in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean.
Type of court
Seat of court
Date of opinion
Language of document
330 F.3d 1358
The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s decision, holding that: (1) the Interim-Final Rule did not conflict with the IDCPA; and (2) NMFS complied with NEPA and reasonably exercised its discretion in reaching its finding of no significant impact.
Court cases cited
Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984)
Garcia v. United States, 469 U.S. 70, 75, 105 S.Ct. 479, 83 L.Ed.2d 472 (1984)
SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80 (1943)
Bohac v. Department of Agriculture, 239 F.3d 1334 (Fed. Cir. 2001)
Sierra Club v. Peterson, 717 F.2d 1409 (D.C. Cir. 1983)
The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA)
The International Dolphin Conservation Program Act (IDCPA)
the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)