The National Marine Fisheries Service has delivered another body blow to Alaska's fishing community. The service's latest biological opinion on Steller sea lions could cost the fishing industry losses of up to $191 million and Alaska communities many millions more.
The pain will be especially great in Kodiak, Sand Point and other parts of western Alaska. There, Alaska's fisheries operators will be banned from prime fishing grounds and pushed into marginal fisheries farther offshore where the water is deeper, the fish fewer and the winter weather wilder.
The Fisheries Service opinion also threatens cutbacks in Alaska's herring and salmon fisheries, claiming that such cutbacks would provide the sea lions a more balanced diet.
Sen. Ted Stevens and Gov. Tony Knowles are fuming about the opinion. Stevens said there is substantial evidence that fishing does not harm the sea lions. Knowles notes that the NMFS twice has been scolded for inadequate biological opinions and now threatens coastal communities with economic devastation. The governor has vowed to fight the decision in every available forum, including the courts.
Stevens said the NMFS ''has staked its reputation on a poor hypothesis and it will cost our state at least $191 million.'' Stevens noted that the total is undoubtedly low and covers only the value of lost fish, not the increased operating costs involved to reach distant and unpromising fishing grounds and the huge social cost to fishing-dependent communities.
The biological opinion is aimed at preserving Steller sea lions, whose numbers in Western Alaska have dropped 80 percent from their high of 177,000 in the 1960s.
Nobody knows why the sea lion numbers are declining, but environmental activists have sued and a federal judge in Seattle last summer banned fishing for pollock and cod within 20 miles of 122 sea lion rookeries and haul-outs and three large at-sea areas where the mammals feed.
The most popular explanation for the sea lion decline offered by fishermen is that the mammals -- which range from 600 to 1,500 pounds or more -- are being eaten by killer whales. The whales in turn have changed their eating habits due to a change in the basic regime of water temperatures and currents in the North Pacific and the Bering Sea.
The Fisheries Service opinion adds little light to the subject and appears to be politically motivated bad science which will punish Alaskans to placate environmentalists. That's nothing new but it hurts just the same.
We shouldn't stand for it.
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