ANCHORAGE - A federal judge in Seattle is critical of National Marine Fisheries Service efforts to determine whether commercial fishing is harming the endangered Steller sea lion in the North Pacific.
The agency will be declared in violation of federal law unless it sorts out the source of the problem, U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly wrote in an opinion that expands upon a one-page order he released last week.
At the center of the dispute is the future of the state's most lucrative commercial fisheries, estimated at $1 billion, and the future of the endangered Steller sea lion, whose numbers have dropped from an estimated 230,000 animals in 1965 to 34,000 today.
Fisheries service staff had prepared a report evaluating how commercial fish trawling affects the sea lions. But Zilly found that review ``limited in scope, heavy on general background information and deficient in focused and meaningful discussion and analysis.''
The review is ``not the broad and in-depth consultation'' required under the Endangered Species Act, wrote the judge, who has been dealing for two years with a lawsuit environmental groups filed against the federal agency that manages North Pacific fisheries.
The agency ``entirely ignored relevant factors and admittedly failed to analyze and develop projections based on information that was available,'' he wrote.
Zilly issued an order last week saying the agency's action fell short of what was required by law. He promised then to elaborate with a longer order, which was issued Wednesday.
That was a victory for the environmental groups that sued, claiming that the agency has failed to take steps to assess whether the commercial fishing industry might be hampering sea lion recovery.
The environmental groups' attorney, Peter Van Tuyn with Trustees for Alaska, said Thursday the agency ``should have been looking at this issue with a wide-angle lens for the past decade.
``This is something that has been going on for a long time,'' Van Tuyn told the Anchorage Daily News.
The order came just two days before Fisheries Service officials and attorneys representing environmental groups began mediation talks in Seattle.
Federal law required that when the sea lion was listed as an endangered species in 1997, the fisheries service would reevaluate how the commercial groundfish harvests affect the sea lion and its critical habitat.
The agency said when the lawsuit was filed that it planned to take a broader look at all federally managed fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. The court issued a stay based on that promise.