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Conservation groups join sea lion fight

States prepare to examine NMFS report

Posted: Sunday, February 06, 2011

Conservation groups are joining forces with the federal government to protect Alaskan wildlife.

According to a press release, Oceana and Greenpeace, represented by Earthjustice, filed motions in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska in support of conservation measures implemented by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to protect the Steller sea lion. The measures restrict fishing by large bottom trawl vessels in certain areas of the western and central Aleutian Islands, as such trawlers can compete with the sea lions for food.

Together, they are acting to defend the regulations against legal attacks from the Seattle-based fishing industry and Alaskan state government, which have gone to court to have the protections overturned.

“The National Marine Fisheries Service plan should be implemented, even while we are convinced that more must be done to allow for recovery of the species,” Oceana Pacific Director Susan Murray said in the release. “The State and the Seattle-based head-and-gut fleet are using out-of-state lawyers to fight the law and the science rather than working toward a solution reached by Alaskans that furthers sustainable fisheries and supports vibrant communities.”

The western population of the Stellar sea lion was first listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act about 20 years ago. Several have been passed over the years to preserve the populations in certain areas. The conservationists feel the large-scale commercial fishing in this area is still interfering too much. The release states the western stock of Steller sea lions has declined by almost 90 percent in waters with such fishing. NMFS formed a biological report called the Biological Opinion for Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska Groundfish Fisheries (BiOp) that examines the groundfish fisheries’ impact on the sea lions. This opinion served as a basis in fishery closures and restrictions in the western Aleutians that went into effect Jan. 1.

This report and legislative motions are being challenged. The states of Alaska and Washington have announced they will assemble a scientific panel to review the BiOp’s validity and used all relevant scientific information and exercised impartiality.

Alaska Department of Fish & Game Commissioner Cora Campbell stated in a release this has put a heavy economic burden on fishermen and communities and that evidence may indicate the western stock of Steller sea lions are recovering. Both states said evidence may also indicate the original population drop was due to natural causes, such as killer whales or changes in the environment, and not the fisheries.

“Before we severely curtail their economic livelihood, we should be certain these restrictions are necessary,” Campbell said in the release. “Our assessment of the BiOp is that it fails to provide sound scientific justification that the restrictions are necessary or will benefit the Steller sea lion population.”

Phil Anderson, Director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, agrees most Stellar sea lion populations are growing and questioned whether the new fishing restrictions are warranted, stating, “We really need an independent scientific review to ensure that all of the science has been carefully reviewed. We need to verify that the costs of this action have been accurately estimated, and that they are appropriately targeted to minimize both jeopardy to the animals and harm to fishermen and their communities.”

Both states recently petitioned for the removal of the eastern Steller sea lion populations from the Endangered Species list, based on steady increases over the past two decades alongside fisheries in Southeast Alaska, and throughout British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. Campbell said the sea lion controversy was one of her priorities when she recently took office as commissioner.

The scientific panel will be chaired by scientists from Alaska and Washington and peer-reviewed. It will review the science relevant to the analysis of factors affecting the status and recovery of sea lions and plans to deliver its report by June. The release states examined issues will include scientific evidence that was not incorporated or adequately analyzed in the BiOp, factors other than fishing that affect Steller sea lion recovery and how the BiOp’s economic evaluations reflect the actual impacts to the affected communities and fishing fleets.

The panel’s report will be made available to the public.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.



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