Environmental groups seek ban on groundfish fishing in Steller sea lion habitat

Posted: Friday, March 31, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Environmental groups that have won several rounds in a lawsuit to protect the Steller sea lion are asking a federal judge to ban trawling for all groundfish -- not just pollock -- within 20 nautical miles of the animal's rookeries and in some other critical habitat areas.

Greenpeace, Sierra Club Alaska, and several other groups asked U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly Thursday to tighten the fishing restrictions around habitat for the endangered sea lion, whose population has plummeted.

Zilly ruled in January that the National Marine Fisheries Service could be declared in violation of federal law unless it sorts out the source of the population decline.

The Steller sea lion population in western Alaska waters, basically west of Prince William Sound, has declined by 80 to 90 percent over the last 30 years. The environmental groups who filed the two-year-old lawsuit say the area of decline is the same area trawled for groundfish, and they say the problems with the sea lion point to nutritional deficiencies.

The marine fisheries service barred the pollock fleet from an area within 20 nautical miles of rookeries and haulouts in the Bering Sea, but the plaintiffs say more fishing restrictions are needed.

''Today's motion includes all groundfish trawling -- Atka mackerel, Pacific cod, flatfish, rockfish,'' said Paul Clarke of Greenpeace in Seattle Thursday. The no-fishing circles in the Gulf of Alaska should be expanded to 20 nautical miles from 10, he said, and trawling should be prohibited in three foraging areas, two in the gulf and one in the Bering Sea.

Briefs are expected over the few weeks from various parties in the lawsuit, with no decision expected for at least a month, Clarke said.

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