A federal appeals court in San Francisco on Friday rejected a bid by aMarin County-based conservation group for more environmental study of whether foreign shrimp fishing vessels are harming sea turtles.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a lawsuit filed against the U.S. State Department by the Turtle Island Restoration Network, or TIRN, in 2009 is foreclosed because the group could have raised its claims in earlier lawsuits.
But the appeals court left the door open for other groups to file a similar challenge in a different lawsuit.
Chief Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski wrote that while TIRN "forfeited its opportunity" to raise environmental claims, "our decision doesn't preclude judicial review of this issue."
Kozinski wrote, "Another plaintiff is still free to bring this challenge."
TIRN, which is headquartered in Olema, is devoted to preserving sea turtles and other marine life internationally.
The group says sea turtles sometimes get trapped and drown in trawl nets used by foreign commercial shrimp fishing vessels, primarily in the Gulf of Mexico. Six out of seven species of sea turtles are listed as either endangered or threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species.
The group claimed in the lawsuit that the State Department should prepare environmental impact statements and consult with federal agencies before allowing foreign shrimp fishers to sell their products in the United States.
A federal law requires the State Department to certify that other countries have sea turtle protections comparable to those required in the United States in order for fishing companies from those countries to sell in the United States.
The department certifies about 15 Central and South American countries to sell Gulf of Mexico shrimp in the United States each year, according to TIRN's attorney Deborah Sivas.
Sivas, who heads the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford University, said, "We're disappointed in the ruling but I think it is likely that another group will step up to take this challenge."
"The court very explicitly left the door open because this issue has never been litigated," she said.
Sivas said environmental review procedures would bring more transparency and public comment to the certification process.
She said sea turtles can be protected by a simple mechanism called a turtle excluder device in trawl nets, but TIRN is concerned that some foreign fishing vessels don't use these devices or comparable measures.