Fishing curbs to protect sea lion could

Posted: Tuesday, April 25, 2000

KODIAK (AP) -- A proposal by environmental groups to shut down trawling within 20 miles of Steller sea lion rookeries and haulouts has fishing industry leaders worried. They say such action could cost Kodiak's economy millions of dollars.

Several environmental groups filed a lawsuit in 1998 saying federal regulators hadn't done enough to protect the endangered Steller sea lions. A federal judge in Seattle agreed.

With that, Greenpeace, American Oceans Campaign, and Sierra Club Alaska suggested fishermen should be barred from trawling in a 20-mile zone around rookeries and haul-outs as well as foraging areas that are considered vital. Their proposals came in a motion March 30.

''We cannot go on with business as usual,'' said Paul Clarke of Greenpeace. ''Trawlers are taking huge amounts of (Steller sea lion) prey fish out of these areas.''

If the judge agrees, industry leaders say it would all but shut down Kodiak's lucrative pollock fishery, putting scores of processing workers and crew members out of work.

''It would really, really curtail the pollock fisheries,'' said Alaska Draggers Association director Al Burch. ''There's just no other place to go.''

Almost all of Kodiak's pollock resource lies within the proposed 20-mile exclusion zone, according to Chris Blackburn of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank. In addition, about 50 percent of the rockfish catch and 75 percent of the shallow flatfish catch falls within the zone, according to Blackburn's estimates.

Based on 1999 figures, the proposed exclusion zone would result in a loss of 833,316 Kodiak processing plant man-hours, resulting in a loss of $8.7 million for local workers, according to Blackburn.

Kodiak Island Borough manager Dave Jensen estimated fisheries tax revenue for the borough would be cut nearly $1.1 million per year. The city would lose about $550,000 in harbor fees and other fisheries revenues.

Because Pacific cod can be harvested by other gear, such as pots and longlines, Blackburn said she didn't include that fishery in her estimates of the impact. Trawlers took more than half the Gulf of Alaska cod quota in 1999.

The judge in the case, Thomas Zilly, cannot consider the economic and social implications of the motion. Under the Endangered Species Act, the Steller sea lion must take top priority.

''We just don't know what the judge is going to do,'' Burch said. ''Hopefully he doesn't get too Draconian.''

Greenpeace says the measure would be temporary and would not completely shut down trawling.

''We aren't saying 'forever,''' Clarke said. ''This is just until NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) can determine how much trawling can be done inside critical habitat -- what levels of fishing are allowable.

''It's worth remembering too that a little over a year ago, when the first measures came into play, people said it would shut down trawling, but it didn't.''

The environmental groups accused NMFS of ignoring declining Steller sea lion populations when it set regulations for the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska pollock fisheries. Pollock, Alaska's richest fishery, is believed to be a major food source for sea lions.

Zilly is expected to rule in the next couple of months on what measures are needed.

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