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OCEANA, INC. v. EVANS

August 2, 2005; as amended October 6, 2005

OCEANA, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
DONALD L. EVANS, et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ELLEN S. HUVELLE, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff challenges the Secretary of Commerce's approval of Amendment 10 to the Atlantic Sea Scallop Fishery Management Plan ("FMP" or "Scallop FMP"), a long-term program to manage the sea scallop fishery through rotational closures and other measures, and Framework 16, a set of regulations authorized by Amendment 10. Plaintiff alleges that in approving these measures, the Secretary has failed to protect loggerhead sea turtles under the Endangered Species Act ("ESA"), 16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq.; to establish an adequate system for observing and reporting bycatch under the Magnuson-Stevens Act ("MSA"), 16 U.S.C. § 1801 et seq.; and to consider the reasonable alternatives proposed by plaintiff to protect essential fish habitat ("EFH") from the destructive effects of scallop dredges under the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq., the MSA, and the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), 5 U.S.C. § 706 et seq. Plaintiff also claims that Amendment 10 defers key decisions about fishery management in contravention of the MSA by establishing a "framework adjustment" procedure for future management measures. Plaintiff has moved for summary judgment and asks the Court to declare the agency actions unlawful, remand them to the agency to cure by a date certain, and enjoin the scallop fishery from operating in Mid-Atlantic waters through November. The Fisheries Survival Fund ("FSF") has intervened as a defendant on behalf of the scallop fishery.

The Court, having considered the voluminous administrative record, the parties' pleadings, and the arguments of counsel at the June 30, 2005 hearing, concludes that plaintiff's motion for summary judgment must be granted in part and denied in part, and that its motion for a permanent injunction must be denied.

  BACKGROUND

  The scallop fishery is one of the country's most valuable fisheries and occurs mainly in the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, and the Mid-Atlantic. (BO AR at 235.)*fn1 Pursuant to its obligations under the MSA, the New England Fisheries Management Council ("the Council") began developing Amendment 10 to the Scallop FMP in 2000.*fn2 The scallop fishery had been a limited access fishery since Amendment 4 was developed and implemented in 1994. (Id. at 236.) Whereas the old FMP provided for annual days-at-sea ("DAS") allocations for vessels to fish anywhere in the Exclusive Economic Zone ("EEZ")*fn3 and allowed the Council to close and reopen certain areas to scallop vessels on an ad hoc basis, Amendment 10 introduced a formal rotational closure system to "focus fishing effort on larger, more valuable scallops in area[s] where the effort is more efficient." (AR Doc. 138 (Amendment 10 and Final Environmental Impact Statement ("EIS")) at C1193.) The rotation program is based on changing conditions of the scallop resource and aims to "postpon[e] mortality on small scallops [. . .,] improv[e] yield, and reduc[e] total fishing time to achieve the fishing mortality targets." Id. The Council also developed Amendment 10 to bring the FMP into compliance with the MSA's mandate to minimize adverse effects on EFH to the extent practicable and with a court order to complete a more thorough NEPA analysis of alternatives to minimize the adverse impact of scallop dredge and trawl gear on EFH. See Am. Oceans Campaign v. Daley, 183 F. Supp. 2d 1 (D.D.C. 2000) (hereinafter "AOC"). Amendment 10 also, inter alia, modified the procedure by which the Council could propose changes to the management measures through "framework adjustments." (See AR Doc. 138 at C1196-99.)

  The Council completed a Final EIS for Amendment 10 on December 19, 2003, and NMFS promulgated a final rule on June 23, 2004. 69 Fed. Reg. 35194 (reproduced at AR Doc. 1329). The final rule incorporates by reference the December 19, 2003 document, which includes both the Council's description of Amendment 10's provisions and the EIS. (See AR Doc. 138.) During the approximately four years of Amendment 10's development, NMFS implemented several interim framework adjustments. These measures opened up previously closed juvenile cod EFH to scallop dredging during the 2000 season (Frameworks 12 and 13), created a controlled-access program for areas of the fishery in the Mid-Atlantic for the 2000 and 2001 seasons (Framework 14), and continued Framework 14's measures for the 2003 season (Framework 15). All of these frameworks provoked legal challenges — particularly with respect to EFH and protection of sea turtles — by Oceana or its predecessor organization, American Oceans Campaign. See Conservation Law Found. v. Mineta, 131 F. Supp. 2d 19 (D.D.C. 2001); Conservation Law Found. v. United States Dep't of Commerce, 229 F. Supp. 2d 29 (D. Mass. 2002) (hereinafter "CLF I"); Conservation Law Found. v. Evans, 306 F.3d 21 (1st Cir. 2004) (hereinafter "CLF II"); Oceana v. Evans, 2004 WL 1730340 (D. Mass July 30, 2003). Courts have consistently rejected these challenges, in part because of the temporary nature of framework actions and the anticipated enactment of Amendment 10. (See Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. and Permanent Injunctive Relief ["Mot."] at 3-6.)

  NMFS issued Framework 16 to the Scallop FMP jointly with Framework 39 to the Northeast Multispecies FMP ("Groundfish FMP") on November 2, 2004. 69 Fed. Reg. 63460 (reproduced at FW16 AR Doc. 306). The joint framework measure establishes the first rotational access areas for the new management program proposed by Amendment 10. Specifically, it allows scallop vessels to dredge for scallops in portions of the existing Georges Bank groundfish closed areas and allocates additional DAS for fishing in these areas. (BO AR at 230.) Framework 16 also revised the EFH closed areas implemented under Amendment 10 to make them consistent with the EFH closures established under Amendment 13 to the Groundfish FMP.*fn4

  Upon determining that reauthorization of the scallop fishery was likely to adversely affect threatened and endangered sea turtles, NMFS initiated formal consultation on December 21, 2001, as required by the ESA. (Id. at 229.) The ESA prohibits federal agencies from authorizing any action that is likely to "jeopardize"*fn5 the continued existence of an endangered species. 16 U.S.C. 1536(a)(2). If an action is "likely to adversely effect" an endangered species, the agency must undertake a formal "consultation" to evaluate the effects of the proposed action and determine whether the action will jeopardize the species. 50 C.F.R. § 402.14. The consultation process results in the issuance of a BO. Id.

  On February 24, 2003, NFMS issued a BO which concluded that the continued operation of the scallop fishery would not result in jeopardy for loggerhead sea turtles or other ESA-listed species. Based on new information on sea turtle takes*fn6 and the proposal to modify the FMP through Amendment 10, the agency reinitiated consultation on November 21, 2003. The resulting February 23, 2004 BO again concluded that, although the agency anticipated that the scallop fishery would result in the incidental take of 111 sea turtles annually, the continued authorization of the scallop fishery would not jeopardize the species' continued existence. (BO AR at 228-29.) Plaintiff brought this case on May 18, 2004, and moved for a preliminary injunction of the scallop fishery on July 16, 2004, arguing that the February 2004 BO had underestimated the number of sea turtles that would be killed by scallop dredges. The Court denied this request at a hearing on August 18, 2004.

  The agency received a new estimate of the number of turtles trapped in scallop dredge gear on August 31, 2004, and concluded that this information warranted reinitiation of the consultation. On December 15, 2004, NFMS issued a final "no jeopardy" opinion and authorized the incidental take of 752 loggerheads annually. (BO AR at 304.) This BO is the subject of plaintiff's instant ESA claims.

  As each of plaintiff's four claims in its Motion for Summary Judgment has its own detailed statutory and factual background, the Court will defer further discussion of the relevant facts and law until it addresses each specific claim.

  ANALYSIS

  I. Standard of Review

  The Court reviews the Secretary's actions pursuant to the judicial review provisions of the APA. The Court may set aside an administrative action only where it is arbitrary, capricious, or otherwise unlawful. See 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A)-(D); Marsh v. Oregon Natural Res. Council, 490 U.S. 360, 375 (1989). Administrative actions are presumed valid and are accorded great deference; thus, the inquiry is only whether the Secretary's decisions were unreasonable, and "this court will not second guess an agency decision or question whether the decision made was the best one." C & W Fish Co., This is particularly the case when the Court is evaluating the Secretary's scientific determinations, as opposed to simple findings of fact. See Baltimore Gas & Elec. Co. v. NRDC, 462 U.S. 87, 103 (1983). Moreover, the Court will not lightly depart from regulations promulgated by an agency in order to achieve a statute's goals. See Continental Air Lines, Inc. v. Dep't of Transp., 843 F.2d 1444, 1451-52 (D.C. Cir. 1988). Thus, it is "especially appropriate for the Court to defer to the expertise and experience of those individuals and entities — the Secretary, the Councils, and their advisors — whom the [MSA] charges with making difficult policy judgments and choosing appropriate conservation and management measures based on their evaluations of the relevant quantitative and qualitative factors." Nat'l Fisheries Inst. v. Mosbacher, 732 F. Supp. 210, 223 (D.D.C. 1990).

  In sum, although this Court undertakes a "searching and careful" examination, Marsh, 490 U.S. at 378, to determine whether there is a "rational connection between the facts found and the choice made," Burlington Truck Lines, Inc. v. United States, 371 U.S. 156, 168 (1962), and it will not accept a record based on "bare conclusory allegations of fact," Taylor v. FDIC, 132 F.3d 753, 762 (D.C. Cir. 1997), the Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary. See Marsh, 490 U.S. at 378.

  II. Biological Opinion

  Scallop fishing gear — consisting of large steel dredges and trawls that sweep along the ocean floor — harms loggerhead sea turtles and NMFS has estimated that up to 479 loggerheads will be killed annually as a result of scallop fishing under Amendment 10 and Framework 16. (BO AR at 304.)*fn7 Loggerhead turtles, listed as "threatened" under the ESA, also face numerous threats from other fisheries and human activities throughout their transoceanic range. Plaintiff alleges that NMFS's decision to nevertheless permit the continued authorization of the Mid-Atlantic scallop fishery, without seasonal closures to protect sea turtles, was arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to the ESA.

  A. Background

  Section 7(a)(2) of the ESA requires that each federal agency "shall . . . insure that" any action authorized, funded, or carried out by the agency is "not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species or result in the destruction or adverse modification" of the species' critical habitat. 16 U.S.C. 1536(a)(2); see also 50 C.F.R. § 402.14. If the proposed action is "likely to affect" an endangered species, the agency authorizing the action must formally consult with either NMFS or the United States Fish and Wildlife Service ("FWS"), depending on the species. Id. The section 7 consultation process results in the issuance of a BO that evaluates the status of the species and the effects of the proposed action, and determines whether the action, "taken together with cumulative effects," is likely to jeopardize a listed species. 50 C.F.R. § 402.14(g)(3)-(4). In preparing a BO, NMFS must use "the best scientific and commercial data available." 16 U.S.C. § 1536(a)(2).

  NMFS listed the loggerhead sea turtle as a threatened species under the ESA in 1978.*fn8 The turtles commonly occur throughout the inner continental shelf from Florida to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. (Id. at 244.) Biologists believe there are at least five distinct subpopulations in the western North Atlantic.*fn9 (Id. at 243.) Threats to these populations include fisheries in state, federal and international waters, poaching, development and erosion on nesting beaches, and ingestion of marine debris, among others. (Id. at 271.) Some subpopulations appear to be increasing, while nesting data suggests that the northern nesting population is "stable or declining." (AR Doc. 1459 at 43-44.) According to a recent assessment, "further declines or loss of the northern nesting population . . . could contribute to a serious population decline over the entire region." (AR Doc. 1435 at 31.)

  The primary type of gear used in the scallop fishery is dredge gear, a set of steel frames, usually fifteen feet in length, which are towed along the sea floor. The dredge fishery accounts for ninety-five percent of scallop landings (i.e., pounds of scallop meat). Trawl gear (a cone-shaped net equipped with steel weights, also towed along the seabed) accounts for most of the remaining five percent of landings.*fn10 (BO AR at 237.) Both types of gear can capture and kill sea turtles. Sea turtles can be injured or killed by forced submersion by the dredge or trawl, being struck by the dredge, being crushed by large rocks that collect in the dredge bag, or falling to the deck of the ship during the hauling of the dredge.*fn11 (Id. at 278-79.) NMFS conducted a series of intraagency consultations to determine whether the continued authorization of the scallop fishery under Amendment 10 was likely to jeopardize the continued existence of sea turtles. The December 2004 BO predicted that 479 loggerheads would be killed annually by scallop gear based on an extrapolation of observed takes during 2003. Based primarily on modeling conducted by NMFS's Southeast Fisheries Science Center ("SEFSC") in 2001 to assess the impact of shrimp-trawl Turtle Excluder Device ("TED") regulations on loggerhead populations (the "SEFSC 2001 model"), the agency concluded that this impact was unlikely to jeopardize the continued existence of the species. (BO AR at 300.)

  Plaintiff alleges that the BO "failed to articulate a rational basis for concluding that the Fisheries Service could insure that continued scallop fishing would not jeopardize loggerheads." (Third Am. Compl. ¶ 2.) Although plaintiff levels a number of criticisms to support this claim, the June 30 hearing clarified that Oceana's primary concerns are threefold. First, plaintiff argues that NMFS's use of the SEFSC 2001 model was so fraught with uncertainties that it was not rational to rely on it to justify a no-jeopardy conclusion. Second, plaintiff claims that the agency's decision was not rational because the record does not support the agency's use of decades-old data, or, in the alternative, because the agency failed to consider data that contradicted one of its key assumptions. Third, plaintiff contends that by defining the relevant "action area" and "environmental baseline" too narrowly, see 50 C.F.R. § 402.02, the agency has obscured the harmful effects of human activities outside the Mid-Atlantic fishery. Notably, plaintiff does not claim that the agency could have relied on a superior model or more current data and thereby failed to use the "best available science." Acknowledging that "the agency can't use information it doesn't have," Oceana instead argues that, "if it's going to rely on information it has to articulate a basis for relying on that information . . . [a]nd if it's going to conclude and ensure against jeopardy, that's a very strong conclusion and it has to have a strong basis for that." (June 30, 2005 Hearing Tr. ["Tr."] at 10.)

  B. Analysis

  The Court reviews the BO under APA standards to determine whether it is "arbitrary, capricious, or otherwise not in accordance with the law." 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A). See Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n v. Norton, 332 F. Supp. 2d 170, 176 (D.D.C. 2004). The relevant inquiry is whether the agency has articulated "a rational connection between the facts found and the choice made." Baltimore Gas & Elec. Co., 462 U.S. at 88. The Court must engage in a "thorough, probing, in-depth review" to determine whether "the decision was based on a consideration of the relevant factors and whether there has been a clear error of judgment," but it may not substitute its judgment for that of the agency. Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402, 416 (1971). Moreover, it must give special deference where the agency has relied on its scientific expertise. See, e.g., Defenders of Wildlife v. Babbitt, 958 F. Supp. 670, 679 (D.D.C. 1997); Nat'l Fisheries Inst., 732 F. Supp. at 223.

  1. SEFSC 2001 Model

  Plaintiff claims that the agency's use of the SEFSC 2001 model to analyze whether the scallop fishery will jeopardize the loggerhead species constituted an "irrational? rel[iance] on the model to do something it is simply not built to do" (Mot. at 16-17), while defendants counter that the model represented a reasoned methodology given the paucity of available data.

  Plaintiff's argument with respect to the model is twofold. The first issue is whether the agency acted reasonably and in accordance with the ESA in the face of uncertainty, and the second, related issue is whether the agency properly considered whether its assumptions had any basis in the record and whether it articulated a reasoned basis for its conclusions. Before resolving these issues, the Court must first explain the details of the model.

  The SEFSC 2001 model was originally developed by several sea turtle experts to help determine how protection of turtles at different "life stages" would impact loggerhead population growth.*fn12 See S.S. Heppell et al., Population Models for Atlantic Loggerheads: Past, Present, and Future, in LOGGERHEAD SEA TURTLES 255-73 (Bolton and Witherington eds., 2003) (reproduced at BO AR RefDoc 41). Rather than quantitatively estimating the size of the loggerhead population, the model indicates whether the population trend is declining, stable, or increasing based on duration of life stages, survival rates at each stage, size at each stage, population growth curves, sex ratios, age to maturity, and other data drawn from existing literature. (See AR Doc. 1435 at 14-25 (describing model in greater detail); see also Fed. Defs.' Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. ["Defs.' Opp'n"] at 14 and Def.-Intervenor FSF's Mem. of P. & A. in Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. ["FSF's Opp'n"] at 10-11 (acknowledging that the model is "qualitative").) Significantly, the model uses mortality rates derived from data collected in the 1970s and 80s. (See AR Doc. 1435 at 19-20; AR Doc. 1400 at 439-42; Mot. at 17.) These rates have not been updated recently — and apparently cannot be updated due to the lack of more recent empirical data. (See AR Doc. 1459 (Turtle Expert Working Group 2000 Stock Assessment) at 80 ("We do not have a reliable estimate of the number of turtles that are susceptible to fishing mortality in a given year").)

  In its 2001 Stock Assessment, SEFSC used the model to assess the impact of the pelagic*fn13 longline fishery on loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles with and without the implementation of TED regulations in the Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawl fishery. (BO AR at 247; AR Doc. 1435.) The SEFSC constructed four models based on different assumptions about the duration of each of the turtle's life stages and ran each model using three different assumptions for population growth and for sex ratio. (BO AR at 247.) The model included a thirty-percent decrease in small benthic*fn14 juvenile mortality based on research findings of existing TED effectiveness and, in some runs, an estimated thirty-percent increase in the survival rate of large benthic juveniles as a result of implementing a proposed requirement for larger TEDs. (Id.) "The results of the modeling indicated that the proposed change in the TED regulations . . . would have a positive or at least stabilizing influence on the subpopulation . . . in nearly all scenarios." (Id. at 248.)

  In developing the BO, NMFS determined that this population trend model represented the most reliable method for estimating whether scallop fishing would jeopardize the continued existence of loggerheads. In doing so, the agency ruled out several potential alternatives, such as comparing estimated takes to the population size or using nesting data. The agency could make "no reliable estimates of absolute population size" of loggerhead turtles (id. at 245), and nesting data was inadequate to estimate "statistically reliable trends" for several of the loggerhead subpopulations. (Id. at 246.) Due to the cyclical nature of both loggerhead nesting and natural events that cause sea turtle mortality, multiple years of nesting data are needed to detect relevant nesting trends and the survey program had only recently begun on some beaches. (Id.) Certain South Florida and northern subpopulation nesting beaches had been surveyed for a long enough period of time to allow the Turtle Expert Working Group ("TEWG") to conclude that the South Florida subpopulation has been increasing over the last couple of decades and that the northern subpopulation is stable or declining. (Id.) The agency did not rely on this information, however, out of concern that nesting data only represents population numbers for mature females (which are not necessarily impacted to the same degree as males or juveniles) and that the benefits of the most recently promulgated measures to address loggerhead capture and mortality — such as requirements that shrimp trawlers utilize TEDs — would not be evident on nesting beaches for many years, given the late age to maturity.*fn15 (Id. at 246, 272; see also id. at 248 (referring to the SEFSC 2001 model and supporting literature as the "best available scientific information" on loggerhead turtles).)

  After rejecting these possible methodologies, the BO proceeds to analyze the "status of the species" based on the SEFSC 2001 model. Intending to give loggerheads the "benefit of the doubt," the BO only considers model runs that assumed an annual population growth rate of 0.97 (three-percent decline), an average age to maturity of 39, and a thirty-five percent or fifty-percent proportion of females in the population (whereas estimates for two of the four subpopulations are sixty-nine percent and eighty percent). (Id. at 248.) The results of the modeling indicated that "western Atlantic loggerhead subpopulations should experience stable or increased subpopulation growth in the coming years as the current immature age classes reach maturity, and as shrimp trawl mortality of mature loggerheads is reduced." (Id. at 249.) The BO also notes that NFMS has taken action to increase the survival of pelagic immature loggerheads by ten percent through regulation of longline fisheries, which would result in even greater positive population growth according to the model. (Id. at 248-49.)

  The BO's jeopardy section represents the agency's analysis of whether the effects of the continued implementation of the Scallop FMP will reduce the reproduction, numbers, or distribution of loggerheads in the action area and whether any such reduction will reduce the species' likelihood of surviving and recovering in the wild. (Id. at 295.) The jeopardy analysis restates the model-based determination that the loggerhead population is likely to stabilize or increase in the coming years and concludes that, given this baseline trend and the implementation of ongoing conservation measures, the 479 annual expected fatalities from scallop fishing dredge and trawl gear are unlikely to jeopardize the species. (Id. at 300-01.) See also supra note 7. Although this estimate of future takes does not figure into the model's calculations, the BO asserts that the model's starting growth rate and mortality rates for each life stage nevertheless "include? impacts as a result of the scallop fishery." (Id. at 300.) Its rationale for this crucial assertion is as follows: In selecting to use this model approach, NOAA Fisheries has assumed that the current population growth rate for loggerhead sea turtles is not worse than 0.97. This is a reasonable assumption given that the 0.97 population growth rate used in model scenarios by [the SEFSC 2001 model] was based on data collected for northern subpopulation loggerheads before action was taken to address many of the known anthropogenic impacts to this subpopulation and the species as described under section 4.0. Therefore, while the modeling approach does not seek to specifically identify or quantify the various anthropogenic impacts to loggerhead sea turtles, the starting growth rates reflected the on-going mortality experienced by the subpopulation. This includes impacts as a result of the scallop fishery. As explained in section 2.1, the scallop fishery has a long history and was well established prior to the 1990's. Therefore, the mortality rates used in [the SEFSC 2001 model] would have included mortality to loggerheads as a result of operation of the scallop fishery. In addition, the scallop fishery became a limited access fishery in 1994 and management measures have served to maintain or decrease, not increase, effort over the past decade. While scallop landings have increased over time, including in the Mid-Altantic, there is evidence that these are due to increased recruitment of scallops in the region. . . . Therefore the estimated bycatch of sea turtles in the scallop dredge fishery for the 2003 scallop fishing year is expected to be less than the level of mortality from the scallop fishery that is subsumed in the starting mortality rates for [the SEFSC 2001 model].

 (Id. at 300.) In other words, current mortalities from scallop vessels are assumed to be "subsumed" in the rates derived from decades-old mortality data because, inter alia, the scallop fishery has "operated similarly throughout its history." (Id. at 222 (Decision Mem., Dec. 15, 2004).)*fn16 This underlying assumption is hotly disputed by plaintiff.

  a. Uncertainty

  With this background in mind, the Court can now turn to the first prong of plaintiff's argument — that the use of the model was simply too speculative to support a no-jeopardy conclusion. (See Tr. at 10, 16.) By picking and choosing runs from the 2001 model — a model designed to evaluate management measures in the Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawl fishery and the pelagic longline fishery, not the scallop fishery — plaintiff argues that the agency was "playing with assumptions" that gave it "a kind of constellation of feelings" about population trends of loggerhead turtles, but did not meet the higher burden of "ensuring" against jeopardy. (Id. at 8-9.)

  For support, plaintiff points to criticisms of the model by Dr. Selina Heppell, a sea turtle expert and one of the model's original developers, in a letter to the NMFS Chief Science Advisor. The letter, submitted approximately four months after NMFS issued the BO, claimed that the agency had misused the SEFSC 2001 model and urged the agency to reevaluate its no-jeopardy decision.*fn17 (Mot. Ex. A. (Letter to Michael Sissenwine from Selina S. Heppell, Mar. 13, 2005) ["Heppell Letter"].) One of Dr. Heppell's concerns was that "[b]ecause the life table models are deterministic and include several unknowns, it is not obvious what constitutes a `conservative' set of parameters." (Heppell Letter at 1.) She listed the many uncertain parameters such as age at maturity, TED effectiveness, sex ratios, and the population growth rate, and pointed out that "[t]hese models were developed, in the absence of most quantitative stock assessment parameters, to generally evaluate the relative impacts of different management strategies on sea turtle populations. The caveats of these models and the sources of their parameters are not detailed in the BiOp." (Id. at 2.) In sum, she recommended that the Council "abandon these heuristic, highly uncertain life table models as evidence for population change or stability." (Id.)

  As mentioned above, plaintiff does not dispute that the model is the best available science. (See, e.g., Tr. at 20.) Instead, it relies on the Court's obligation to ensure that the agency's decision was "reasoned," Defenders of Wildlife, 958 F. Supp. at 679, and argues that although the SEFSC 2001 model may have been the "best available science," the model is so ill-suited to the purpose for which it was used, and so fraught with uncertainties, that the agency could not rationally conclude that the scallop fishery was not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of loggerheads. As explained by plaintiff, this contention is based on the legal premise that the agency has the burden of showing that it can "insure" against jeopardy, 16 U.S.C. § 1536(a)(2), and that if the agency cannot provide such "insurance," it must reach a jeopardy conclusion and provide "reasonable and prudent measures" if the agency action is to go forward. (See Tr. at 13-16.) See also 16 U.S.C. § 1536(b)(3)(A).

  The weight of authority is contrary to plaintiff's legal premise. Time and again courts have upheld agency action based on the "best available" science, recognizing that some degree of speculation and uncertainty is inherent in agency decisionmaking, even in the precautionary context of the ESA. Though the ESA should not be implemented "haphazardly, on the basis of speculation," Bennett v. Spear, 520 U.S. 154, 176 (1997), an agency need not stop in its tracks when it lacks sufficient information. See Bldg. Indus. Ass'n of Superior Cal. v. Norton, 247 F.3d 1241, 1246 (D.C. Cir. 2001) ("the Service must utilize the `best scientific . . . data available,' not the best scientific data possible") (emphasis in original); Southwest Ctr., 215 F.3d at 60 (agency had to rely on inconclusive data to make a decision whether to list the species; the "best scientific data" requirement does not obligate an agency to conduct new independent studies); Blue Water Fisherman's Ass'n v. NMFS, 226 F. Supp. 2d 330, 338 (D. Mass. 2002) ("[I]mperfections in the available data do not doom any agency conclusion. . . . The agency's conclusion need not be airtight and indisputable."); Fund for Animals v. Babbitt, 903 F. Supp. 96, 115 (D.D.C. 1995) ("The government is entitled to rely on analyses and opinions that are non-dispositive without its decision being rendered arbitrary and capricious.").

  In response to this authority, plaintiff cites Conner v. Buford, 848 F.2d 1441 (9th Cir. 1988), where the court determined that FWS had to "give the benefit of the doubt to the species" and find jeopardy in light of the agency's conclusion that there was "insufficient information" available to prepare a comprehensive biological opinion concerning oil and gas leases. Id. at 1453-54. More recently, however, the same court held that FWS could properly reach a no-jeopardy opinion and allow a proposed action to proceed even in the face of scientific uncertainty about the action's impact on the species. See Greenpeace Action v. Franklin, 14 F.3d 1324, 1337 (9th Cir. 1992) ("[NMFS's] decision to go ahead with the [proposed action], despite some uncertainty about the effects of [the proposed action] on the [species], was not a clear error of judgment" where the agency "supported its conclusions with ample data and analysis.").*fn18

  These cases demonstrate that the many uncertainties that trouble Dr. Heppell are not sufficient to doom the model. A recent case from the D.C. Circuit is instructive in this regard. In Nuclear Energy Institute, Inc. v. EPA, 373 F.3d 1251 (D.C. Cir. 2004), the D.C. Circuit considered the EPA's decision to designate a point eighteen kilometers south of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal repository as one location at which compliance with environmental standards would be measured. The plaintiff argued that the agency's factual assumption that humans were not likely to settle any closer to the repository was wrong and that, accordingly, the agency's decision was irrational. The Circuit rejected plaintiff's argument, explaining that "to satisfy the APA's rational-decisionmaking standard, EPA need not prove that humans will never settle within the controlled area; the agency needs only a reasonable basis for believing that they are unlikely to do so." Id. at 1276 (emphasis in original). Similarly, the agency needs only a reasonable basis for concluding that its action is "not likely" to jeopardize the species. 16 U.S.C. § 1536(a)(2). That NMFS's decision arose in the context of the ESA does not change this basic standard.

  Plaintiff argues that the model is so uncertain as to be arbitrary — that it is past the point of having "occasional imperfections," Bldg. Indus., 247 F.3d at 1247, but rather is wholly disconnected with reality. See Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. v. EPA, 139 F.3d 914, 923 (D.C. Cir. 1998). While it is true that the "best available science" does not always pass muster under a rationality test, see Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 332 F. Supp. 2d at 177,*fn19 the Court is unable to conclude in this case that the agency's choice of methodology was irrational. Although experts have suggested that reliable take limits cannot be established without quantitative data gathered from "in-water" surveys (see AR Doc. 1459 at 81, 92), the regrettable fact is that the necessary data simply does not exist. NMFS does not deny that a thorough quantitative analysis based on empirical estimates of population size would be a superior way to analyze the impact of the scallop fishery on sea turtles, but has reasoned that in the absence of the necessary data, the SEFSC 2001 model is the next best alternative. Defendants and intervenor maintain that, given the paucity of information on sea turtles and the difficulties of using the data that does exist, "[a] different or more complex model was not available and could not even be constructed."*fn20 (Defs.' Opp'n at 11.)

  In response, plaintiff cites Columbia Falls, 139 F.3d 914, to support its claim that the 2001 SEFSC model was irrationally applied. There, the D.C. Circuit established that "[a]n agency's use of a model is arbitrary if that model `bears no rational relationship to the reality it purports to represent.'" Id. at 923 (quoting Am. Iron & Steel Inst. v. EPA, 115 F.3d 979, 1005 (D.C. Cir. 1997)). The Court found that the use of a model to determine toxicity of a byproduct of aluminum production was arbitrary and capricious because all the available evidence showed that the byproduct would actually be exposed to disposal conditions which were quite different from those simulated by the model. Id; see also Chemical Mfrs. Ass'n v. EPA, 28 F.3d 1259, 1265-66 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (striking down EPA's designation of a particular chemical as a "high risk" pollutant because the record did not show a rational relationship between EPA's air dispersion model and the designated chemical's properties). But whereas the model in Columbia Falls simply did not simulate the proper situation for the problem at hand, the SEFSC 2001 model was based on painstaking analysis of the existing literature on the life cycle of loggerhead sea turtles. (See AR Doc. 1435; BO AR RefDoc 41.) Thus, even if flawed or limited in its application, the model bears a rational relationship to the reality it purports to represent. The model as originally developed was intended to help the agency understand population trends of loggerhead turtles in response to new conservation measures. The BO also relies on the model to understand population trends in a world where those conservation measures have in fact been implemented. Especially since neither plaintiff's expert, Dr. Heppell, nor any other expert, has offered a superior — or in fact any — alternative for analyzing jeopardy, the Court cannot agree that the agency's use of the model, despite its uncertainties, was inherently irrational. See generally Oceana I, 2005 WL 555416, at *17 (noting that "the Court will only reject the Secretary's choice of model `when the model bears no rational relationship to the characteristics of the data to which it was applied'") (internal citation omitted); CLF v. Mineta, 131 F. Supp. 2d at 26 n. 15 ("It is not the Court's role to second-guess agency evaluations of complex scientific data within the agency's expertise.").*fn21 b. Mortality Data

  The Court's conclusion that the agency's use of the SEFSC 2001 model represents a reasoned approach does not resolve plaintiff's further claim that the data used in the model was so stale as to undermine the model's utility.*fn22 The most recent mortality data used in the model were collected in a study of strandings undertaken between 1986 and 1989. (See, e.g., Heppell Letter at 1.) Other data incorporated into the model were collected in the mid-1970s. (Id.) Given that the entire purpose of the jeopardy analysis is to analyze the current and future impacts of the scallop fishery on turtle population trends, the agency was obligated under section 7(a)(2) to consider whether the model reflected these impacts despite its use of decades-old data. See Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass'n v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 43 (1983) (agency's failure "to consider an important aspect of the problem" renders its decision arbitrary and capricious); Burlington Truck Lines, 371 U.S. at 168 (agency must demonstrate a "rational connection between the facts found and the choice made").*fn23 To justify its use of decades-old data, both the BO and the Decision Memorandum rely on the assumption that the scallop fishery was operating similarly or more intensively at the time the data was collected than it is today. See supra Section II(B)(1). As described previously, the BO justifies this assumption by explaining that that "the scallop fishery has a long history and was well established prior to the 1990s. Therefore, the mortality rates used in [the SEFSC 2001 model] would have included mortality to loggerheads as a result of operation of the scallop fishery. In addition, the scallop fishery became a limited access fishery in 1994 and management measures have served to maintain or decrease, not increase, effort over the past decade." (BO AR at 300.) The underlying assumption is that the scallop fishery has not changed for the worse with respect to turtle fatalities since the 1970s and 1980s, but rather, has either remained the same or improved given the conservation measures implemented since that time.

  Plaintiff contends that the record contradicts this assumption and that, instead, "there likely has been a substantial increase in loggerhead mortality rates."*fn24 (Mot. at 18.) In the alternative, plaintiff argues that, even if the Court cannot conclude that the agency's assumption is factually incorrect, the agency failed to adequately articulate its reasoning and to consider information contained in Amendment 4 that would have indicated that DAS levels have increased substantially since the 1970s. Thus, according to plaintiff, the BO failed to "rationally consider ...


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