NMFS proposes more restrictions on fishing to protect sea lions

Posted: Friday, December 01, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The National Marine Fisheries Service has propsed new restrictions on commercial fishing to protect the endangered Steller sea lion in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

The federal agency, charged with protecting marine mammals and other species, issued another biological opinion Friday on the causes for the sea lions' steep decline.

The new report concludes that many factors, including environmental changes, have contributed to the steep decline of the sea lions. But it says commercial fishing is a significant factor in their decline.

It calls for new restrictions on when and where the commercial fleet can fish for pollock, Atka mackerel and Pacific cod. The restrictions include harvest limits and seasonal closures.

Agency officials said Friday they hope the nearly 600-page report will prompt a federal judge in Seattle to lift an injunction banning trawling in areas considered critical habitat for the sea lion.

''We think that what we've done should get us back into compliance with the law. We hope it will satisfy the judge's requirements,'' said Penny Dalton, fisheries director with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly of Seattle issued an injunction in July halting bottom fishing in areas considered critical habitat for the sea lion. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed against NMFS by environmental groups.

The judge criticized the agency, saying it failed to prepare legally adequate opinions assessing how the commercial fisheries affect sea lions and how fisheries can be managed to avoid jeopardizing the species.

The Steller sea lion population in western Alaska has declined by more than 80 percent since the early 1970s.

After the judge's sweeping closure, the fall season pollock catch totaled only 22 million pounds, less than a third of the quota.

Fishing industry representatives say the new restrictions will hurt the billion-dollar pollock fishery and could threaten the jobs of fishermen and processing workers.

Instead of doing a better job of explaining the science behind the sea lion problem, NMFS ''simply responded by imposing more rules on fishermen,'' said Travor McCabe, executive director of the At-sea Processors Association. The group represents larger catcher-processor vessels.

The agency estimates the proposed changes will cost the industry from $75 million to $200 million annually.

Jack Sterne, staff attorney for Trustees for Alaska, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit against NMFS, said he hadn't had time to study the lengthy report and was guarded in his assessment.

''It appears they've closed significantly more critical habitat to fishing for pollock, Pacific cod and Atka mackerel, but there's still a substantial level of fishing in critical habitat,'' Sterne said.

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens has been pushing for legislation that would lift the federal court's ban on trawling near sea lion rookeries and haulouts.

Stevens said Friday the opinion appears to be an improvement from previous NMFS opinions and seemed to answer some of the concerns of the small-boat fleet, but he said it may not go far enough.

The NMFS report recommends opening up some areas closer to shore for fishing by small boats. Under Zilly's order, small boat operators were forced out into more dangerous waters 20 miles from shore.

Dalton, the NMFS fisheries director, said the agency was willing to work with Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles and local fishing communities to find ways to mitigate the economic impact of the restrictions.

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