Congress Approves Protections for Sea Lions, Fishers

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, December 18, 2000 (ENS) - The U.S. Congress has finished its work for the year with the passage of a massive bill funding several federal agencies and government programs. The legislation passed Friday after Alaska Senator Ted Stevens ended efforts to attach a rider to the bill suspending restrictions on Alaska's ground fisheries.

Stevens

Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Senator Stevens, the Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, held up work on remaining fiscal year 2001 funding bills while he attempted to override a recent decision by fishing managers to close portions of Alaskan groundfisheries to protect endangered Steller sea lions.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a decision on December 1 calling for fishing closures within certain critical habitat areas for the sea lions. The agency's biological opinion also aimed to reduce competition between the sea lions and fishing vessels by spreading the total allowable catch inside the sea lions' critical habitat across four seasons, while dividing the year into two seasons outside critical habitat.

Stevens' rider would have temporarily prevented the application of all federal environmental laws to the federal North Pacific groundfish fisheries, effectively blocking the NMFS regulation. The pollock, Atka mackerel, and Pacific cod fisheries support a multimillion dollar fishing industry, but also form the food supply for the sea lions.

Since the 1960s, the population of Steller sea lions has declined by more than 80 percent. The decline continues, with an estimated average drop of more than five percent each year during the 1990s.

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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)
Stevens said the NMFS decision was "based on an unproven hypothesis. The Fisheries Service's own scientists admit they have no data to support their theories."

"NMFS admits there is no evidence that fisheries harm sea lions," Stevens said in testimony on the Senate floor. "But NMFS is shutting down fisheries based on the assumption that the fisheries affect sea lions because they occur in the same place and use the same resource. Using their assumptions, virtually every fishery in the United States could be shut down."

Since the 1960s, the population of Steller sea lions has declined by more than 80 percent. The decline continues, with an estimated average drop of more than five percent each year during the 1990s.

President Bill Clinton vowed to veto any legislation carrying Stevens' rider.

Last Friday, Stevens reached a compromise with the White House that will allow the NMFS regulation to be enforced, while providing $30 million in aid for Alaskan fishers that will be impacted by the fishing restrictions.

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Steller sea lions rest on a "haul out" (Photo courtesy National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML))
"Senator Stevens played chicken with the Endangered Species Act and lost," said Heather Weiner, senior legislative counsel at the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, one of several groups that lobbied against Stevens' rider. "The integrity of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Protection Act remains intact for the time being. It remains to be seen if Steller sea lions survive as well."

Under the final language attached to the budget bill, the Reasonable and Prudent Alternative issued by the NMFS will be enforced, but the agency must take steps to minimize the impact on small boat Alaska fishers and the fish processing industry, to the extent possible. The rider prevents the Commerce Secretary from reducing the Total Allowable Catch of the fishery by more than 10 percent.

The bill authorizes $20 million for a pilot project to control orca whales, which Stevens believes are the real culprit for the sea lions' decline. The money will also fund studies of additional potential dangers to the sea lions, other than fishing.

Dr. Craig Matkin of the North Gulf Oceanic Society and one of Alaska's leading experts on orca whales, has called Stevens' assertion that orcas are responsible for the decimation of Steller sea lions "unfounded."

Another $30 million is authorized for direct payments to individuals, businesses and "other entities" affected by the fishing restrictions.

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The NMFS rule bars trawling in parts of sea lion critical habitat (Photo by Allen Shimada, courtesy NMFS)
"We are concerned that the fishing industry may try to pressure the Secretary to delay implementation of the new conservation measures, using the roadblocks provided by Stevens in this rider," said Janis Searles, staff attorney for Earthjustice in Juneau, Alaska. " But we are hopeful that the agency will continue with its plan to protect sea lions from extinction, whether in this Administration or in the next one."

Stevens' rider was attached to a massive bill that funds the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor, and certain specific programs including President Clinton's New Markets initiative, which aims to increase investment and development in economically depressed areas of the country.

The bill provides a $6.5 billion, or 18 percent, increase for the Department of Education, the largest ever. The Department of Health and Human Services receives a $9 billion, or 22 percent, increase.

The final budget includes $1.2 billion to enforce federal safety, health, pensions, wages, and nondiscrimination practices. This $102 million increase will support 1,500 inspections to ensure safe and healthy workplaces.

The National Institutes of Health, funded by this bill, received a $2.5 billion increase, or about 14 percent over current funding.

The bill also covers the Departments of Commerce, Justice and State, which were funded under an earlier bill which was then sent back to Congress for revisions. Among the changes are full funding - $835 million - for United Nations peacekeeping efforts.

The legislation includes immigration language that will allow almost 700,000 immigrants who have worked, lived and paid taxes in the U.S. for years to stay in the country legally.

Congress also opted to include language extending the four year moratorium on Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) programs to manage America's fisheries. IFQ programs guarantee some fishermen exclusive privileges to catch fish in a particular fishery.

Environmental groups, including The Center for Marine Conservation (CMC) have worked to extend this moratorium until Congress has had time to establish strong national standards for IFQs that ensure that fish and their marine environment are protected for the long term.

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Fishing boats crowd a wharf at Cordova, Southern Alaska (Photo courtesy NOAA)
"Congress has done the right thing for the fish by extending this moratorium," said Roger Rufe, CMC president. "We must set national standards for IFQs to ensure that there are enough fish to sustain current pressures and future needs while maintaining a viable working ecosystem."

IFQs have been used as a tool in certain fisheries to control overfishing and other harmful aspects of commercial fishing. Congress imposed the IFQ ban in 1996, concerned that IFQs alone were not achieving their goals of protecting fish or fishermen. The moratorium expired October 1, 2000.

"We are not looking for a permanent moratorium or prohibition on IFQ programs," said Rufe. "IFQ programs allow certain fishermen exclusive privileges to catch fish. For that privilege, these fishermen must show themselves to be responsible stewards of the resource or risk having their quotas revoked."

There are currently three IFQ programs in place in U.S. federal waters: halibut and sablefish in the Gulf of Alaska, wreckfish in the South Atlantic, and Atlantic surf clams and ocean quahogs in the Mid-Atlantic. These were established prior to the 1996 moratorium.