Scientists Say Fishing Pressures Hurting Steller Sea Lions

WASHINGTON, DC, December 4, 2000 (ENS) - Commercial fishing activities in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bearing Sea are jeopardizing the endangered western population of Stellar sea lions and other imperiled species, declares a long awaited biological opinion released by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

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Federal biologists say Steller sea lion populations in Alaska are declining because commercial fishing operations are delpeting their food supplies (Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

The Fisheries Service (NMFS), a component of the U.S. Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), concluded that fishing pressures constitute a "significant factor" in the decline of the sea lions, which are vanishing at an average rate of 4.7 percent per year.

To reduce those pressures, new controls must be placed on fishing practices in the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea and along the Aleutian Islands, the agency's biological opinion found.

"Our responsibility under the Endangered Species Act is to ensure that fishing practices do not put this population of Steller sea lions or other [endangered] species in jeopardy of extinction," said Don Knowles, director of NOAA Fisheries' Protected Resources Office.

The biological opinion says that continued fishing for groundfish - pollock, Atka mackerel and Pacific cod - is likely to jeopardize the western population of Steller sea lions and adversely affect their critical habitat.

The biological opinion released last Friday outlines a "Reasonable and Prudent Alternative" (RPA) that modifies the management plan for the groundfish stocks in order to limit competition between fishing vessels and the sea lions.

Since early August, fishing grounds within the sea lions' designated critical habitat have been closed to trawl fishing by federal court order. NOAA officials were optimistic that the agency's new biological opinion and management measures will meet the court's expectations, and that the agency would then be able to open the fishery under these measures.

"The good news is that we now have a biological road map that will give the courts and us assurance that fishing can resume in many areas currently closed, without further risk to the sea lions," said NOAA fisheries director Penny Dalton.

The newly released opinion recommends that a number of steps be taken in order to protect the Steller sea lions. They include closing certain fishing areas and spreading out fishing through seasonal harvest limits.

The scientists recommend reducing the harvest of the sea lion's primary food supply in critical habitat areas, and monitoring the effectiveness of these measures.

The opinion establishes a new rule that reduces the annual percentage harvest of pollock, Pacific cod and Atka mackerel when they are at low abundance levels.

Competition between the sea lions and fishing vessels will be further reduced by a plan that spreads the total allowable catch inside the sea lions' critical habitat across four seasons, while dividing the year into two seasons outside critical habitat.

In addition to time adjustments, the opinion calls for the annual harvest to be apportioned to specific geographic management areas in order to avoid concentrated fishing in small areas. Fishing vessel disturbance to Steller sea lions will be minimized by closing a portion of the animals' critical habitat foraging areas to all vessels.

Dalton said NOAA plans to work with affected fishermen and communities to assure continual improvement in the science underlying the regulation of the fishery, and to minimize the potential economic impact from the new protective measures.

"We recognize that healthy and productive fisheries provide thousands of jobs in Alaska and Washington State," said Dalton. "We will be looking for every opportunity to minimize any adverse economic impacts associated with our new measures, and we are willing to revise our biological opinion and regulations in light of new scientific information as early as the 2002 fishing season."

That is not good enough for Alaska Governor Tony Knowles, who said that the fishing reductions would have "huge negative impacts" for the state's small boat fishermen and coastal communities.

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Alaska Governor Tony Knowles (Photo courtesy of the Governor's Office)

"[The Fisheries Service] itself estimates the potential economic harm to be as much as $200 million annually for groundfish fisheries," said Knowles. "These measures would also directly impact vessel operations and costs, crew safety and community stability."

Knowles said that he will not let Alaska's fishing families and coastal communities "pay the price" of the Fisheries Service's plan.

"We will challenge this in every forum, including the courts if necessary," he said.

The newly released biological opinion is still being carefully scrutinized by environmental groups, which have long called for far reaching and comprehensive controls on fishing operations in the region.

"The oceans can no longer be treated as a strip mine," said Ken Stump of Greenpeace. "It's long past time for the [Fisheries Service] to recognize that the oceans are a complex ecosystem and reflect that in management decisions."

The Fisheries Service has posted a detailed version of its biological opinion on its website, located at: http://www.fakr.noaa.gov.