The congressional showdown over new protection measures for the endangered sea lion of western Alaska ended about as well as could be expected. Conservationists, some fishing interests and Sen. Ted Stevens all claimed a degree of satisfaction.
The Clinton administration kept the Endangered Species Act in place, forcing fishery managers to continue sea lion protection efforts in the coming season. An independent scientific review will take place, including a look at industry's claims that industrial-scale fishing has not and does not endanger sea lions. Sen. Stevens' rider adds another $20 million to sea lion research, bringing the total in this year's budget to $44 million.
Another $30 million of aid is available to fishermen hurt by measures to protect sea lions. Federal fishery managers are authorized to juggle the protection measures to help small, Alaska-based operations. That impact aid and management flexibility are critical to help remote Alaska coastal communities, which will suffer the most from the new rules. To the greatest extent possible, the new protections should be adjusted to shift the burden away from these economically vulnerable communities.
Other concerns from this battle linger, as well. The work on this important issue was largely done out of public view. Key decisions were debated and made among Sen. Stevens and a handful of others working on the very last budget bill Congress had to pass before adjourning. Putting such substantive legislation into a ''rider'' on an urgently needed budget bill denies the public a full chance to see, understand and participate in the decision-making.
Under the senator's compromise, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council will review and possibly modify the sea lion protection measures. It's possible the council could provide useful feedback, but it has already denounced the new rules at issue. In the past, the council has diluted or changed rules for protecting sea lions without providing any justification, according to the judge in the sea lion litigation.
The stakes involved are huge. Bottomfishing in western Alaska is a $1 billion a year industry facing basic questions about its ecological sustainability. The answers are crucial to the factory trawlers that work the high seas, the plants that process the catch ashore, the local fishermen who work the nearshore waters, the coastal communities that depend on the fishery for jobs and taxes -- and the complex ecosystem that supports them all.
Steller sea lions are not the only problem. Sea otters, fur seals, the Steller's eider and spectacled eider are all in some degree of trouble. So are the crabs that have supported lucrative fisheries in the region. From king crab to snow crab to tanner crab, fishermen initially enjoyed rich harvests, but the species crashed. Repeating those experiences would spell more hard times for western Alaska, where the industry has brought new economic life into struggling rural coastal communities.
In this case, as in most Alaska development vs. conservation disputes, everyone professes to want an outcome based on ''good science.'' If only that would resolve the conflict. Reaching scientific consensus can take decades and consume untold millions of dollars. (The tobacco industry still disputes that smoking really and truly causes cancer.) Meanwhile important policy decisions -- do fisheries critically important to Alaska coastal communities have to be further restricted to save sea lions from ruin? -- must be made right here, right now.
The painful economic adjustments ahead can't justify delaying action until it is too late. By the time scientific knowledge is beyond challenge, the damage -- to sea lions and to the fisheries and the communities they support -- may be irreversible.
In the early 1740s, Vitus Bering and Georg Steller explored Alaska's western coastline and the Bering Sea, site of today's fishing disputes. From Russia's Bering Island, Steller reported an unusual sea creature, a mammal 25 feet long, weighing upward of 8,000 pounds. It was a social animal that fed close to shore in large groups, with no fear of humans. Steller's crew, dying of starvation, killed many of the creatures for food. Later adventurers in the region exploited this placid and vulnerable mammal without restraint.
Today, the creature is known as the Steller sea cow. But its name, and the details Steller and a few others recorded, are all we know about it. By 1768, it had gone extinct.
History will harshly judge our generation's stewardship if we let the same fate befall the sea lions or other marine life of western Alaska.
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