ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The state will try to overturn broad fishing closures ordered by a federal judge to protect endangered Steller sea lions, Gov. Tony Knowles said Monday.
The closures force Alaska fishermen to fish farther from shore in perilous waters, and thus choose ''between their lives and their families,'' he said.
''The lives and livelihoods of Alaska's coastal communities hang in the balance,'' said Knowles, calling U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly's July ruling irresponsible.
The state will ask the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Zilly's decision to close 20-mile swaths around Steller sea lion rookeries from Prince William Sound and areas west, Knowles said. Fishermen say the ban covers at least 50,000 square miles and about 95 percent of their traditional fishing grounds.
Half the groundfish harvest normally comes from those areas. It is the nation's largest fishery, taking about 5 billion pounds of fish worth almost $1 billion. Groundfish include pollock, cod, rockfish and Atka mackerel.
Knowles said he's also written a letter to President Clinton asking him to expedite a comprehensive biological opinion being prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The NMFS' failure to provide a biological opinion the judge considered adequate was the principal reason Zilly granted the injunction.
Knowles also set up a new group he calls a Sea Lion Recovery Team to work to restore healthy sea lion populations and develop alternate fish management strategies so they'll be ready when the biological opinion is finished. NMFS is planning to complete that opinion by the end of next month.
The restoration team includes Kodiak fisherman Jay Stinson, Michelle Ridgway of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, and several biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Knowles said another fisherman and an independent scientist would be added later.
Fishermen say the judge's ruling puts them in harm's way.
''Because of the injunction, it is not safe for me to be out there,'' said Stinson, a trawl fisherman who is chairman of the Alaska Draggers Association. ''And there are no fish out there to catch.''
The state will file a ''friend of the court'' brief in the case at a minimum, said Lance Nelson, an assistant attorney general. An appeal already has been filed by the Aleutians East Borough and one of the fishing groups involved.
Fishermen and leaders in fishing communities welcomed the state's legal action.
''I'm very happy the state is finally weighing in on this,'' Stinson said.
Alaska's involvement in the suit wasn't welcomed by lawyers for the environmental groups that won the injunction.
''The state's intervention is extremely untimely,'' coming two years after it was filed, said Jack Sterne, a lawyer with Trustees for Alaska. That environmental firm is representing Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the American Oceans Campaign.
The environmental groups who filed the lawsuit don't want a total ban on fishing in the critical areas if it's not necessary, Sterne said.
''But until NMFS does its job and does its biological opinion, it's impossible to say what will or will not harm Steller sea lions,'' he said.
Research indicates that nutritional stress is a problem for the animals, Sterne said, though the overall cause of the decline isn't clear.
''It'll be years, probably, before scientists can give us definitive, beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt explanations,'' he said. But in the meantime, ''if the system's in stress, do you exploit it more heavily or exploit it more lightly so the system can adapt?''
The sea lion population in Western Alaska dropped from an estimated 180,000 animals in the mid-1960s to fewer than 50,000 today, and that decline led to the animal's listing as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
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