Stevens trying to legislate around pollock fishery impasse

Posted: Tuesday, October 31, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Sen. Ted Stevens met with Commerce Secretary Norm Minetta to make a case for legislation that would allow pollock fishing to resume in near-shore areas along Alaska's Gulf Coast.

Stevens contends that the pollock are not endangered, but said a recent judge's decision to close near-shore fishing threatens 20 years of work to build the Alaska industry's relationship with retailers and restaurants.

''This isn't just Alaskans,'' Stevens told a group of reporters Monday. ''The whole economy based on utilizing fish in our country -- whitefish -- will be affected.''

Fish sticks sold at such places as McDonald's and Long John Silver's are pollock, Stevens said. ''Those places ... they're going to get their fish somewhere in the world.''

Stevens wants to place language maintaining an open pollock season on one of the last appropriation bills of the session.

He was meeting resistance, however, from environmental groups and from the Clinton administration.

Stevens said the pollock issue was one of the major sticking points remaining in negotiations over the spending bill for the Labor, Education and Health and Social Services departments.

''We just cannot allow this bill to become law without finding some way to allow fishing to commence,'' Stevens said.

In August, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly of Seattle halted pollock, cod and other groundfish harvests within 20 miles of sea lion rookeries and haul outs along Alaska's coastline from Cordova westward to the end of the Aleutian Island chain.

His decision came in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups trying to protect declining numbers of sea lions. They contend that the fishing industry is catching too much of the sea lions' food.

The shutdown provoked protests from fishermen, Alaska's congressional delegation and Gov. Tony Knowles. Shutting down fishing near the sea lion rookeries and haul outs hurts the smaller Alaska boat owners who can't range onto the open sea, they say.

The judge said the National Marine Fisheries Service, which manages the fishery, hadn't demonstrated well enough how its plan addressed the decline in sea lion populations. The agency was to produce a new ''biological opinion'' for the judge by Monday, but it has not been finished.

The judge's order has closed the fall pollock season, which traditionally ran through the end of October. The next season opens in early January.

Unless the National Marine Fisheries Service biological opinion is finished in a form satisfactory to the judge, that season, too, could be stopped.

Stevens said he was trying to obtain legislation that prevents that from happening.

''We have a provision that contains all of the agreements offered to the court by the industry to protect sensitive habitat areas ... and reduce the take of pollock 13 percent in the coming period,'' Stevens said.

The Alaska Republican had said earlier that he also wants about six- to nine months for the Fisheries Service to develop its biological opinion and for it to be reviewed. ''I want that biological opinion subject to some public process.''

An initial draft of the document was leaked earlier this month, and it proved embarrassingly inadequate, Stevens said. ''I'm told that this biological opinion won't satisfy any court.''

The effects of the judge's order already are being felt in some Alaska coastal communities.

John Boucher, an economist with the state Department of Labor in Juneau, said unemployment claims from Kodiak were more than twice as high this September as last.

''The level of unemployment in Kodiak is unusually high, and I think it's being influenced by the lack of processing in that area,'' Boucher said.

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