ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The National Marine Fisheries Service is an agency people love to hate. You can tell by all the lawsuits pending against it.
The agency, based in Silver Spring, Md., regulates fish harvests off the U.S. coast. It also works to preserve marine mammal populations and marine habitat.
Its Juneau-based office regulates the largest commercial seafood harvest in the nation, with Alaska fishermen landing about half the 9.1 billion pounds of fish harvested commercially in the United States last year.
Vast as they are, the ocean riches are hardly inexhaustible. Nobody knows that more than William Hogarth, a career fish scientist with a North Carolina drawl whom the Bush administration appointed in September to head the Fisheries Service.
He stepped into a job whose staff of biologists and other researchers is increasingly distracted by lawsuits from commercial and recreational fishermen, environmentalists and others upset over agency decisions in regulating fisheries or safeguarding marine life.
The agency has struggled particularly with a 1998 suit brought by the environmental groups Greenpeace, American Oceans Campaign and Sierra Club. The groups allege that the agency long ignored a steep decline in western Alaska's endangered Steller sea lion population and allowed large harvests of pollock and other bottom fish that the sea lions eat.
In early 2000, U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly in Seattle held the agency in violation of the Endangered Species Act. The judge said the agency failed to thoroughly assess whether the commercial fisheries are hurting the Stellers and their habitat.
The Fisheries Service, in concert with a federal advisory council of industry, academic and government representatives from Alaska, Washington and Oregon, has written a new ''biological opinion'' on fishing impact on the sea lions and new rules to restrict fishing, but the lawsuit continues.
Last year, the fishing industry divided $30 million in federal disaster funds U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, secured to compensate for restrictions during 1999 and 2000.
Hogarth previously held posts in Florida and California before taking over the agency, which has about 2,800 employees and an $829 million budget. He was in Anchorage last week for a meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Hogarth says one of his priorities is to change the image of the agency.
''We've got to be more open, transparent,'' Hogarth said. ''We've got to work with the stakeholders and get them involved with the process. We can't just work behind closed doors with a firewall between various groups.''
Hogarth says he also wants to get fishery management out of the courts.
''With 118 lawsuits we need to figure out a way to do the job so we don't stay in court.'' he said.
Many of the lawsuits were over whether the agency did the proper environmental impact statements or followed the National Environmental Policy Act in making its decisions. Hogarth acknowledged the agency hasn't always done enough to satisfy laws, such as NEPA.
''For a long time we didn't really get into what NEPA considers a full range of alternatives, from almost no fishing to full, wide-open fishing and all the alternatives in between,'' he said.
Hogarth says he's would be happy to see many of the lawsuits settled.
''We've got 200-some people probably just working on lawsuits -- nearly 10 percent of the staff. We really need to be out collecting data, doing stock assessments,'' he said.
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