ANCHORAGE(AP) -- A federal panel on Monday approved a plan for the second half of this year that increases protection for Steller sea lions in some areas while boosting opportunities for commercial fishermen.
The new emergency rules were approved by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council 9-1, with Jim Balsiger of the National Marine Fisheries Service in opposition. It now goes to the Secretary of Commerce for approval.
The plan customizes restrictions for 13 fishing areas from Prince William Sound to the Aleutians. It replaces regulations for the industry imposed in December in the wake of lawsuits filed to protect the endangered Steller sea lions.
The new plan provides increased sea lion protection in areas where they are declining, while allowing more pollock and other groundfish harvesting in areas where sea lions numbers are rising. Those include productive grounds near Dutch Harbor and Unimak Island, near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula.
''A major area's going to be reopened that is right now closed,'' said Frank Kelty, resource analyst for the city of Unalaska. ''Processing plants will be more efficient, now because vessels will be in their traditional areas, and pot vessels can fish within three miles of rookeries,'' he said. The prior rule required all fishing boats to stay 20 miles from Steller sea lion rookeries and haulouts.
The Steller sea lion population in the Dutch Harbor area is increasing at a rate of 7 percent annually, according to a report prepared for the council. The Unimak area, with a three percent increase, is the only other area where sea lions are not in decline, the report said.
Allowing commercial fishing vessels to fish within 10 miles of shore in the Dutch Harbor and Unimak areas will result in ''millions of dollars in increased value due to production of higher quality products, both fillets and surimi,'' said Ed Richardson, an economist with the At-Sea Processors Association.
''When you focus protection in areas where Steller sea lions are declining the most, if there is a connection between the decline and commercial fisheries, it should give us the most ban for each harvest sacrificed,'' Richardson said.
For Prince William Sound and certain sections of the Aleutians, where sea lions in the steepest decline, fishing would remain restricted to areas 20 miles from listed rookeries and haulouts. Around Sand Point, fishing would be allowed ten miles from rookeries and haulouts.
The Alaska Marine Conservation Council expressed concern over telemetry data used in deciding to scale back some areas of critical habitat for the sea lions, noting that more information was needed on the sea lions and where they are foraging for food.
The designation of critical habitat for the sea lions should be re-examined in the future as new information becomes available and as current information is synthesized, AMCC said in written testimony to the council.
Populations of Steller sea lions in the region have declined about 80 percent from the levels of the late 1970s to about 16,000 currently. They were listed as endangered in 1997.
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