SITKA (AP) -- Poor salmon prices have forced commercial fishermen in five villages of the Aleutians East Borough to depend on the same groundfish that environmentalists say are essential to endangered Steller sea lions.
Beth Stewart, natural resources director for the Aleutians East Borough, said new regulations being considered by a federal panel would give both a chance for survival.
''The ability to fish groundfish is all that stands in the way of bankruptcy. It gives these villages a chance to make it,'' Stewart said. She said the villages of King Cove, Sand Point, Akutan, False Pass and Nelson Lagoon have no other economies.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council begins studying a series of new regulations on Friday to try to minimize commercial fishing effects on endangered Steller sea lions in Western Alaska.
Two competing plans -- one favored by environmentalists and one favored by the fishing industry -- will be taken up by the council in an effort to allow fishermen and sea lions in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska to coexist.
Western Alaska's population of Steller sea lions has dropped by more than 70 percent over four decades to an estimated 34,600. Steller sea lions west of Prince William Sound, estimated to number up to 180,000 in the 1960s, were listed as endangered in 1997.
While environmentalists attribute the decline to competition for fish between commercial fishermen and sea lions, not all scientists agree. Complicating the process is a lack of scientific data on why the sea lions are in decline, said Shane Capron, Steller Sea Lion Recovery coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
''We're kind of stuck in a Catch-22,'' Capron said.
Commercial fishermen are operating under emergency rules that increased protections for Steller sea lions in some areas and increased opportunities for fishermen in other areas. Those rules expire this year.
A draft plan supported by the National Marine Fisheries Service would shift some commercial fishing away from sea lion rookeries and hunting areas and change the fishing seasons and harvesting methods in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is considering that proposal along with a host of other plans to limit the effects of fishing on Steller sea lion protections in Western Alaska.
It is expected to finalize its recommendation in an October meeting in Seattle.
But environmentalists complain that the measure was crafted by commercial fishing interests with little regard to the future of sea lions.
The plan would close groundfishing within 3 nautical miles of 37 rookeries and bar groundfishing within 20 nautical miles of 5 haulouts in the Bering Sea.
It would also impose regulations on the types of fishing, the location of fishing and the seasons.
''What they've done is leave open the areas the industry likes to fish and closed the areas that aren't all that good,'' said Jack Sterne, an attorney with Trustees For Alaska. ''As it stands now, we think they've taken a colossal step backwards.''
Sterne represented Greenpeace and other environmental groups in a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service seeking limits on commercial fishing to protect the sea lions.
Under orders from a federal judge to provide a biological explanation for the sea lions' decline, the agency concluded that many factors, such as environmental changes, contributed to the problem. But the agency said commercial fishing was a significant factor.
The harvest of groundfish, such as pollock and Pacific cod, off Alaska's coast is the most valuable fishery in the nation, valued at nearly $1 billion annually. The catch is made into fish sticks, fish patties and imitation crab.
Stewart said the emergency rules adopted last year closed fishing in some of the most productive areas and resulted in about 40 percent less cod. She characterizes the plan supported by NMFS as ''the least evasive of the options.''
Sterne said his group will file its criticism during a public comment period, which ends in October. But he said it is too early to tell whether they would pursue legal action.
Final fishing regulations are expected to be in place by January 2002.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council oversees management in waters of the 900,000 square-mile Exclusive Economic Zone that takes in the Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands.
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