SITKA (AP) -- Proposed new rules for commercial fishing in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska will not halt the decline in Steller sea lion populations there, according to the nation's new top fish manager.
Instead, the rules will be tailored to preserve the nation's most valuable groundfish harvest while minimizing its impact on the remaining 34,600 sea lions in western Alaska waters.
''Even if we remove all the fisheries in the waters, over the next six to eight years the status of the Steller sea lions will still have a negative decline,'' said William Hogarth, appointed Thursday as the new director of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
New rules being considered by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council are intended to avoid jeopardizing sea lions while scientific research on their decline continues, Hogarth said.
''I think the emphasis is on protecting the fishing industry and Stellers. There's no reason you can't do both,'' Hogarth said.
Steller sea lion populations west of Prince William Sound were placed on the endangered species list in 1997 after the population plummeted by about 80 percent over four decades from an estimated 180,000 mammals.
Steller sea lion numbers in western Alaska are dropping at a rate of about 5.2 percent a year, according to the Alaska Steller Sea Lion Restoration Team, a panel appointed by the governor to study the issue.
Some environmentalists argue that heavy fishing of pollock, Pacific cod and Atka mackerel in the Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska and waters off the Aleutian Islands caused the decline in the sea lions.
But fishing industry officials disagree. They're quick to note that the sea lions are the most abundant mammals on the endangered species list.
So far, scientists have been at a loss to explain the population drop. Possible explanations include ocean climate changes affecting sea lion prey, predation from killer whales and sharks and a so-called ''junk food'' theory, which suggests the sea lions eat too much low-fat pollock and cod.
The fisheries service, which is responsible for protecting threatened and endangered marine animals, says commercial fishing is contributing to the decline.
For decades, Steller sea lions were seen as nuisance animals and were often shot by mariners, hunters and fishermen. Some Natives also hunted sea lions for food.
Eastern stocks of Steller sea lions -- from Southeast Alaska to California -- are listed as a federally threatened species despite increasing numbers.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is expected to recommend new fishing rules at its October meeting in Seattle. Those rules should cover fishing in the region when the season begins in January.
A plan favored by the fishing industry and the NMFS calls for sweeping changes in rules on fishing techniques, seasons and fishery locations. But it would largely preserve the industry.
The proposal would keep boats from fishing within 3 nautical miles of 37 rookeries. And it would prohibit groundfishing within 20 miles of five Bering Sea foraging areas. Specific areas would be closed to some types of fishing, but environmentalists challenging the plan say those areas aren't used anyway.
Such a change would cost the Alaska commercial fishing industry up to $14.4 million and up to 513 jobs, according to an NMFS study.
Environmentalists favor reducing the groundfish catch and essentially moving fishing boats away from known sea lion habitat. That could cost the industry up to $149 million and result in the loss of up to 4,740 jobs, fisheries service officials say.
Current emergency regulations, enacted last year to preserve Steller sea lion habitat, provide 3 nautical mile ''no transit'' zones for fishing boats near 37 rookeries and forbid trawling within 10 and 20 nautical miles of various rookeries.
Phil Kline, of the environmental group American Oceans Campaign, said any new fishing plan that don't reverse the decline in Steller sea lion populations is ''unconscionable.'' He criticized the NMFS for kowtowing to the fishing industry.
''I'm afraid we might drive Stellers to extinction if we continue the way we are going,'' Kline said.
A federal judge in Seattle ordered NMFS to further study reasons for the decline of Steller sea lions after Greenpeace and other environmental groups sued in 1998. Part of the work in Sitka this week is reviewing a new biological opinion prepared in response to that judge's order.
Environmental groups have stopped short of threatening legal action to block changes in the fishing regulations. But Hogarth, the new NMFS leader, expects a court challenge.
''I think we've got something the agency can defend,'' Hogarth said.
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