A new plan meant to restore endangered Steller sea lions could devastate fishing communities from the Kenai Peninsula to Kodiak, critics say.
The National Marine Fisheries Service plan would close the area from lower Cook Inlet to Kodiak and Seward to commercial fishing for Pacific cod and pollock, said Homer longline fisher Alan Parks, outreach coordinator for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
"Essentially, it closes the areas where our local fleet from Homer has been fishing," he said.
The western population of Steller sea lions has fallen by more than 80 percent over the last 30 years, and was listed as endangered in 1997 under the federal Endangered Species Act. Last summer, in response to a lawsuit by Greenpeace, the American Oceans Campaign and the Sierra Club, U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Thomas E. Zilly banned trawling within Bering Sea, Aleutians and Gulf of Alaska critical sea lion habitat until NMFS released a plan that adequately addressed the effects of commercial fisheries on sea lions.
The plan NMFS released Dec. 1 is meant to spread commercial fishing through time and space, relieving pressure on sea lion food supplies.
On top of that, some critical habitat areas would be closed year-round to commercial fishing for the three species. Those include most of northern Shelikof Strait, lower Cook Inlet, and the area within 20 nautical miles of shore from Kodiak to just north of Seward.
Ron Berg, deputy regional manager for NMFS in Juneau, said that if the federal government puts its sea lion plan into effect, the state may still open cod fishing in state waters inside the closed critical habitat areas.
"The intent would be that any catch that occurs would be subtracted from our federal quota," he said.
Parks said the terms of any state fisheries will remain uncertain until after the Dec. 21 meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.
Meanwhile, the federal plan would spark a race to fish the critical habitat areas near shore, he said, and big trawlers will have the advantage over Homer pot and jig fishers.
"By the time a small boat from Homer goes there, participates in the fishery -- he's got to get his hooks wet or his pots in the water. By the time he retrieves them, the season will be closed," he said.
Once the critical habit areas close, the fishery moves offshore, where small boats may fear to fish.
Tom Pearson, NMFS fishery biologist in Kodiak, said that because of a federal limited-entry program instituted on Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea bottom fisheries this year, there will be rush of new large boats entering the fishery. Federal rules also allocate 100 percent of the Gulf of Alaska pollock catch and 90 percent of the Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod catch to shore-based processors, he said, so there will be no influx of big factory trawlers.
Under Zilly's order, pollock fishers along the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutians last fall fell 20,000 tons short of the quota, he said. Zilly lifted his order after NMFS released the Dec. 1 plan.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council recently rejected the NMFS plan, Berg said.
"The North Pacific council came out saying they don't believe fishing alone is impacting Steller sea lions, and the measures we have proposed won't get the job done," he said.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has threatened amendments to a federal appropriations bill to preserve groundfisheries and block implementation of the NMFS plan.
"My provision would require public review and allow the fishery to go forward under both the Endangered Species Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Act regulations that were in place last year," Stevens said.
Berg said the NMFS goal is to put the plan in place by Jan. 20. There will be a 180-day public comment period after the plan is in place.
Restrictions to protect sea lions could someday extend to herring and salmon fisheries. According to NMFS, salmon comprise about 40 percent of Steller sea lions' summer diet. However, since salmon fisheries are managed primarily by the state, NMFS did not address those in its Dec. 1 proposal.
Herring and salmon will be the topics of future analysis, Berg said, and NMFS will coordinate with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Board of Fisheries.
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