UNALASKA — Alaska seafood organizations are suing to stop a ruling by the National Marine Fisheries Service that would protect fish on which the endangered Stellar sea lions feed.
The ruling by the fisheries service has closed an area to fishing Atka mackerel and Pacific cod in the far western Aleutian Islands, according to the Alaska Public Radio Network.
The Alaska Seafood Cooperative fishes in the closed area, and take about 90 percent of its Atka mackerel quota.
Linda Larson, an attorney who represents the cooperative, said the ruling is misguided and that it unfairly blames overfishing for the decline of the Stellar sea lion population when other factors may be at fault.
“They’re taking these very drastic, very restrictive measures to shut down huge areas of the Aleutians to any fishing at all for Atka mackerel or cod without stepping back and taking a looking at whether there were other things they could do that would allow fishing to continue,” Larson said. “We just don’t see a conservation emergency that calls for such a drastic change.”
A fisheries service spokesperson said the closure rule was pushed into place by Jan. 1, despite objections by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, to comply with the Endangered Species Act.
Stellar sea lions have been listed as an endangered species since 1997. Fishermen must travel and fish under restrictions provided for sea lions.
The restrictions forbid Aleutians East Borough commercial fishermen from transit within three miles of rookeries unless weather endangers their lives. Restrictions on sea lion critical habitat sometimes mean no trawling within 20 miles of rookeries.
The Aleutians East Borough stretches from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula to the eastern Aleutian Islands and includes the Shumagin Islands.
The fisheries service estimates that communities and companies involved in the affected fisheries could lose between $44 and $60 million per year because of the fishery closure.
Larson said the organizations that sued the fisheries service have not yet decided whether they will seek an injunction to try to fish this season.