ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska fishermen and processors whose livelihoods depend upon pollock want a two-year suspension of the Endangered Species Act's application to the Steller sea lion.
The request is contained in a spending bill rider, and was made because of fears that further reductions in fish harvests will be ordered soon to protect a major food source for the shrinking marine mammal population.
The rider declares that for the next two years, existing regulations would be sufficient to protect the sea lion. Scientists during that period would be asked to look more deeply into the core issue in the dispute -- whether fishing is the cause of the sea lion's demise.
Fights over the Endangered Species Act and its application to the spotted owl and salmon in the Pacific Northwest have been controversial. Efforts to suspend the act have generated political turmoil and only rarely have succeeded.
After the July closure of 156,000 square miles of coastal waters to pollock fishing by a federal judge in Seattle, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he was unlikely to pursue a spending bill rider to overturn the injunction because of the prospects for inciting an election-year battle he was unlikely to win.
But a dozen or more fishermen and processors showed up in Washington, D.C., this week to appeal for a rider. That came after they said they learned the National Marine Fisheries Service will be asking for more time to complete a biological opinion on the sea lion that they had hoped would cause the judge to lift the injunction.
''The senator is reviewing what, if anything, can be done,'' Stevens' spokeswoman Connie Godwin said Wednesday.
The opinion was supposed to be ready by the end of the month. But fishermen said that not only will the new opinion be delayed, but that it will form the basis for additional restrictions on fishing -- perhaps as much as a 40 percent reduction in the pollock harvest next year.
''The rumors we're hearing out of NMFS are of sufficient concern that we're to the point of going to the senators and asking for relief,'' said Glenn Reed, president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. ''It just sounds like insanity to us.
''We are talking about the best managed fishery in the world,'' Reed told the Anchorage Daily News.
The injunction closing fishing within 20 miles of sea lion rookeries was issued in a lawsuit brought by environmentalists alleging the federal government has failed to protect the marine mammal, whose stocks have been steadily plummeting.
Environmentalists contend that the fishery, which uses the largest factory ships in the business, is taking too many fish that sea lions, especially the young ones, need to survive.
But the fishing industry insists that something more fundamental has caused a shift, perhaps cyclical, in the ocean's biology and that more nutritious sea lion fare like herring have dwindled.
In a separate action Wednesday, Sen. Frank Murkowski sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta that blasted the fisheries service for ''gross misjudgment'' in provoking the pollock closures.
The Alaska Republican wants Mineta to conduct an independent investigation into ways to reopen nearshore areas to commercial fishing.
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