Feds push new groundfish plan

3,000-page study looks at how fisheries affect ecosystems

Posted: Wednesday, March 28, 2001

People who avoided reading the novel "War and Peace" because the book was too big probably will steer clear of the federal government's new environmental study on ocean fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

The foot-high, 3,000-page draft environmental impact statement got its first hearing Tuesday night in Juneau before about 30 people, and most who testified didn't like it. However, the document ultimately could drive the way the federal government manages the lucrative groundfish industry.

A federal judge ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to do the study in 1999, after a group of environmentalists sued the agency, saying it was managing pollock fisheries off the Alaska coast to maximize the quantity of fish caught, without enough regard for endangered Steller sea lions that depend on the fish for food. The judge ordered federal fisheries managers to re-examine the impacts of the fisheries on sea lions.

In the study, the agency tried to measure the effects of Alaska ocean fisheries on habitat, marine life and people. Also, it laid out policy alternatives for managing future fisheries in the 900,000 square-mile area from three to 200 miles offshore.

The study tentatively concluded the fisheries had negative effects on the habitat, ecosystem, some seabirds and Steller sea lions. In part, the study found the fisheries could be hurting sea lions by taking their prey.

"We can't definitely conclude there is a significant adverse impact on Steller sea lions from our fisheries, but we can't rule it out either, and we think there's enough information out there to suggest our fisheries could be having an adverse effect," said Steve Davis, NMFS project manager.

The study also identified the positive side, including the fisheries' effects on the economy. The groundfish industry employs thousands of workers and generates more than a billion dollars in revenue every year, the study said.

The next step is to choose the best way to manage the fisheries in the future. The agency could opt for the current management policy or choose from five alternatives laid out in the study.

"Ultimately what I see at the end of this process is we'll have a policy statement that will serve as the basis for future actions," Davis told the crowd.

Seven people testified Tuesday night - all were conservationists. Most said they didn't like the way the agency presented the five alternatives to the status quo. Each alternative is too narrow, focusing only on a single strategy, some people said. For example, one alternative would set policy to increase protection to marine mammals and seabirds by curtailing fishing. However, another option values benefits to the fishing industry at the expense of marine mammals. Another emphasizes only habitat.

Sitka fishermen Linda Behnken, who heads the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association, wants the agency to develop a preferred alternative by choosing elements from all the options on the table. In an interview, Behnken said none of the alternatives alone offers a balanced approach.

Irene Alexakos of the Sierra Club Alaska Chapter rejected all the options, saying the federal government should ban bottom trawlers.

"There is almost a pathological failure to see the whole picture," Alexakos testified. "The central and overriding priority must be to keep the ecosystem healthy. It cannot be a question of choosing between the health of the fishing industry and that of the ecosystem."

The meeting at Centennial Hall was the first of five scheduled on the West Coast. The agency also will take testimony in Oregon, Washington, Kodiak and Anchorage. The fisheries service will choose a preferred alternative after the public comment period, which was extended to June 25 because the study is so large and complex.

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