Sea lion restrictions could be expanded to salmon, herring fisheries

Posted: Sunday, December 03, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska's commercial salmon and herring fisheries might need to be restricted along with the giant pollock fishery to stop the steep decline in endangered Steller sea lions, federal officials said Friday.

The huge sea lions need a balanced diet and might not be getting it because of competition from fishing nets, hooks and traps, according to the government's ''leading hypothesis'' for the 80 percent slide in Stellers in Western Alaska.

The prospect of expanding sea lion protections to salmon and herring harvests chills the fishing industry, which over the last two years has been restricted in catching abundant bottom fish such as Alaska's walleye pollock, used for cheap fish sandwiches and imitation crab.

Vast stretches of water have been closed to bottom-fish trawl nets to leave more food fish for Stellers.

Late Thursday, regulators for the National Marine Fisheries Service filed a new sea lion protection plan in U.S. District Court in Seattle, where a judge had condemned past efforts as legally deficient under the Endangered Species Act.

As a consequence, federal Judge Thomas Zilly this summer had banned trawling for bottom fish in sea lion ''critical habitat'' along the coast from Prince William Sound west through the Aleutians, an area the size of Washington state.

The fisheries service and the fishing industry were hopeful the new Steller protection plan, called a biological opinion, would persuade Zilly to lift the ban.

But the NMFS plan wouldn't open up the fishing much. It still calls for no fishing or severely restricted fishing in most of the critical habitat and it applies to new classes of fishermen besides the high-volume trawlers, including hook-and-line boats and boats that deploy traps called pots.

The industry and Alaska lawmakers protested Friday that the new opinion lacks scientific proof that commercial fishing caused the sea lion decline and that the government's estimate of up to $191 million in losses for the fishing industry and fishing-dependent communities next year under the new plan is far too conservative.

''The agency has staked its reputation on a poor hypothesis,'' said U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. ''The opinion directly attacks the pollock and cod fisheries and indirectly sets up the salmon fisheries for similar treatment in the future.''

The fishing industry contends that boats and nets aren't starving out the sea lions, but shifts in ocean conditions might be.

Harvests of Alaska bottom fish are worth more than $1 billion a year after initial processing, federal officials said. Salmon, the lifeblood for many coastal Alaska communities, is the state's second most valuable fish harvest, bringing more than $260 million raw at the dock this year.

Environmentalists who sued the fisheries service in 1998, forcing the new biological opinion, had few comments on the 588-page document.

In a prepared statement, Greenpeace spokeswoman Niaz Dorry said Saturday the opinion for the first time considers the cumulative and combined impact that overfishing Alaska's waters has had on the ocean environment.

''Previous opinions have dealt with only individual species of commercially valuable fish,'' Dorry said. ''This is the first time on the planet that fisheries managers have been required to take into account the health of a region's entire ecosystem.''

The biological opinion calls for restrictions only for pollock, Atka mackerel and Pacific cod -- species managed by the federal government because they are caught mostly in waters more than three nautical miles from shore. Salmon and herring are caught closer in and those harvests are managed by the state.

The biological opinion says that the state-run salmon and herring fisheries, as well as a relatively small state-run cod fishery, could be competing with sea lions for food and that the state should consider working with the federal government on a ''habitat conservation plan.''

Lawyers for the government, fishermen and processors and the environmentalists asked Zilly for a status conference on the case next week.

Big fishing companies condemned the new Steller protection plan. But commercial fishing interests in Gulf of Alaska communities like Kodiak and Sand Point seemed the most embittered.

They said the small boats typical of their communities would fare worse than larger Seattle-based trawlers, which can brave more distant and dangerous waters to at least try to round up fish outside of areas the fish like most -- the waters around sea lion rookeries and resting rocks.

''Fishing is all we have,'' said Dick Jacobsen, mayor of the Aleutians East Borough and a fisherman. ''We don't have a Safeway here. We can't go down and get a job as a bag boy or something.''

Gov. Tony Knowles reacted angrily: ''After being scolded by the courts for two previously inadequate biological opinions, NMFS is now threatening coastal communities with economic devastation, and I will not let our fishing families and coastal communities pay the price. We will challenge this in every forum, including the courts if necessary.''

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