Settlement expected soon in sea lion lawsuit

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A resolution may be in sight for a long-running federal lawsuit filed by environmental activists seeking tougher commercial fishing restrictions off Alaska to protect endangered Steller sea lions.

On Friday, a settlement request was submitted to a federal judge in Seattle by the plaintiffs, federal regulators and fishing groups.

If U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly approves, the lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service -- the agency that regulates commercial fishing off Alaska -- could end.

The suit, filed five years ago, led to major court-ordered restrictions on where and when fleets could catch Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska pollock, cod and mackerel that the sea lions need for food.

It also led U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to secure tens of millions of federal dollars from Congress for sea lion research and compensation for fishermen, seafood processors and ports damaged by the Steller restrictions.

''We would be delighted to see this case concluded,'' said Jim Balsiger, Alaska administrator for the fisheries service. ''We look forward to protecting marine mammals and managing the fishery without the draining demands of an ongoing lawsuit.''

According to the fisheries service, under the proposed settlement all parties would agree to drop their claims as the agency meets deadlines to revise environmental studies on fishery impacts, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

Over the course of the suit, Zilly faulted the fisheries service for violating the Endangered Species Act and other laws in analyzing the possible effects of fishing on the sea lions and in designing ways to minimize harmful impacts.

Restrictions in the $1 billion annual Alaska bottom-fish harvest, the nation's largest, included closing some waters, especially around sea lion rookeries and resting rocks, to prevent nets from depleting nearby food fish.

The fishing industry, Stevens and some scientists, however, contend it isn't clear whether nets or environmental changes caused the sea lion decline. Zilly also never ruled on whether the fishing industry was at fault.

The environmental organizations that filed the suit are Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the American Oceans Campaign, which since has joined with another organization called Oceana.



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