ANCHORAGE (AP) -- North Pacific Fisheries Management Council members on Saturday rejected new fishing restrictions in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea aimed at helping endangered Steller sea lions.
Council members said the restrictions will risk fishermen's lives and will increase bycatch.
The council's opinion, approved 10-1, is only advisory. The National Marine Fisheries Service will still implement the restrictions, said James Balsiger, the agency's top official in Alaska.
Balsiger sits on the council and cast the only dissenting vote.
''It wasn't a surprise they rejected it. That had been the attitude that had been prevalent,'' Balsiger said. ''I understand their position. We're looking forward to working with them over the next few months to try to get a better document.''
Council members said the restrictions may not help the endangered marine mammal. Fishermen say climate change and a decline in forage fish with high fat content may play a greater role in the decline than fishing.
U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, praised the council for opposing the new rules. In a brief appearance, Stevens said the vote will help him gain political support to block NMFS's restrictions through congressional action.
The Steller sea lion's western Alaska population has declined by 80 percent since the 1960s.
The new NMFS rules affect pollock, cod, and Atka mackerel fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. They were developed in response to an Endangered Species Act lawsuit filed against NMFS by three environmental groups.
The suit resulted in an injunction issued by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly in Seattle banning all trawling in sea lion habitat to protect the animals from competition with commercial fishermen. After the federal agency released new rules, Zilly lifted the injunction.
But fishermen say the new rules are equally or more restrictive and will send small boats dangerously far offshore.
Fishing industry and coastal community representatives on Friday staged a demonstration before the council in opposition to the new restrictions. Council chairman David Benton described the demonstration as an unprecedented show of solidarity among the often feuding factions.
One environmental group also opposes the new regulations. Dorothy Childers, executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, said the NMFS' management alternatives are completely unacceptable
''They're going to increase bycatch, increase habitat destruction, and increase the race for fish, and basically flies in the face of the Magnuson Stevens Fisheries Conservation Act,'' she said.
''What's unacceptable about what NMFS' has done is that they're really trading Steller sea lion conservation for all the other conservation measures,'' Childers said.
New restrictions on commercial fishing to protect endangered Steller sea lions could mean more poaching in U.S. waters by Russian factory trawlers, according to the Coast Guard's representative on management council.
''I don't want to be up here in February telling you we've opened the EEZ (exclusive economic zone) to Russian fishing because we've got all our cutters down patrolling the rookery areas,'' said Capt. Vince O'Shea.
''We're spread thin,'' O'Shea said. ''I'm going to have two cutters up here in January to do rookery patrol, search and rescue, as well as the other things we do.''
Council members also want NMFS to clearly identify areas closed to fishing. O'Leary said the new rules ''create a multi-patchwork quilt of regulations,openings, and closures.'' By contrast, he said, ''The no-trawl ban seemed to be a relatively straight forward order.''
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council plans to hire independent scientists to study the new rules and examine various potential causes of the sea lion's decline. It also plans to disregard vessel catch histories from 2001 in devising any new limited entry schemes.
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