Black Eagle Dam in Great Falls

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments in a case where the methods of determining stream ownership rights are at issue. In the case, PPL Montana LLC vs. Montana, the Supreme Court is faced with deciding what the proper criteria for determining whether a river is navigable, specifically as it relates to title rights, is the current navigability of a river or the navigability of a river at the time the state in which it is found was incorporated. Though this distinction may seem insignificant, the court's decision could have far reaching impacts on stream access rights around the country.

PPL Montana, a Montana power generation company that owns hydroelectric dams on the famous Missouri, Madison and Clark Fork Rivers, is arguing that the Montana Supreme Court decision which gave ownership rights of the streambeds of these three rivers to the State of Montana was an erroneous one. Both sides will present arguments on what the proper legal distinction determining navigability is, and both sides reportedly plan to cite information from the historical Lewis and Clark expedition.

Wetlands, which provide vital fish and wildlife habitat, face decreased protection if the current bill passes. Photo: NOAA.

Advocacy groups are urging individuals to take action to help prevent the passage of a Senate Energy and Water Development bill which contains amendments that seek to limit the ability of the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to enforce regulations established by the Clean Water Act. The bill, proposed by senators John Barrasso (R-WY) and Dean Heller (R-NV), establishes provisions that would prevent the two agencies from altering or updating guidelines that define what types of water bodies are protected by the Clean Water Act.

The amendments in the bill, H.R. 2354, were drafted as a response to efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA to draft new rules and regulations which clarify what water bodies fall under the Clean Water Act's protections. These agency efforts to reduce ambiguity concerning what water bodies are protected are a direct result of a series of Supreme Court Decisions and directives by the Bush administration which introduced the uncertainty. Specifically, ambiguity was recently introduced regarding whether certain wetlands and water bodies that may run dry during certain seasons or drought conditions are considered protected by the Clean Water Act.

A scene from Moshannon State Forest, which is home to one of Pennsylvania's worst drilling accidents to date.

Despite offering funding for environmental and conservation focused organizations, such as Growing Greener and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, advocacy groups have been sharply critical of two bills passed last week by the Pennsylvania Senate and House of Representatives. Each body passed their own versions of similar bills designed to address regulations and fee assessments related to drilling operations extracting natural gas from Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale formation. The Senate passed SB 1110, while the House passed HB 1950. Both bills established new, stricter regulations regarding drilling practices within the state but, according to one environmental advocacy group, were "stuffed full of goodies for the multinational drilling industry, but likely to sicken local communities, the environment, and taxpayers."

The two bills were most sharply criticized for limiting the ability of local governments to regulate how drilling takes place in their communities as well as levying only minimal fees on the drilling companies. Particular exception was taken to the impact fee assessment specified by the House bill, HB 1950, which establishes a fee of only 1 percent. Furthermore, this 1 percent fee in HB 1950 is also optional and open to negotiation by drilling companies.

Bluefin tuna. Photo: NOAA.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) met this past week in Turkey to negotiate on new protection measures affecting bluefin tuna, swordfish and several species of shark. The front-and-center topic of the meeting was whether or not to implement a digital tracking system for reporting catches of bluefin tuna. Proponents have argued that the current paper tracking system is inaccurate and prone to abuse. A study by the Pew Environment Group indicated that, last year, the actual amount of Mediterranean bluefin tuna meat that entered the market was over 140% more than was declared. Ultimately, the 48 member state commission agreed, voting to implement the requirement for an electronic catch tracking system to replace paper tracking methods.

The commission also voted to decrease the minimum length of fishing vessels that must be reported to the ICCAT, from 20 feet to 12 feet. Advocates of this action are describing this as an important step, as recent evidence has shown that a high number of smaller vessels have been fishing illegally for both bluefin tuna and swordfish.

When you report on fish population conservation and management issues, you're most often reporting bad news. While this isn't a pleasant consequence of the tasks, it is the reality. Every so often, a success stories like the current situation in Florida come along, and offer a the opportunity to report from a different perspective. Due to successful management practices, this week the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission voted in new regulations on both redfish and speckled sea trout.

Redfish picture
A fine specimen. (Photo: Bay St)

According to managers, both populations have reached levels of abundance that allow for increase take limits on these species. In some areas of Florida, stocks of these fish have almost doubled benchmarks set forth by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) for use in determining the health of populations. In the case of sea trout, all regions of the state demonstrated in the 2010 assessment that populations exceeded benchmarks set forth by the FWC. Redfish populations have demonstrated a similar level of success, with benchmarks set forth by the FWC having been met or exceeded for the last couple of decades.