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ANCHORAGE -- A federal judge has ordered trawl fishing be stopped in areas designated as critical habitat for endangered Steller sea lions in western Alaska.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly of Seattle concluded the National Marine Fisheries Service hasn't done enough to protect the large marine mammals, whose numbers have fallen dramatically in recent decades.
As a result, the judge said, continued trawling for pollock, cod and other fish in the critical habitat poses a ``reasonably certain threat of imminent harm'' to the sea lions.
Fishing groups and affected communities say Zilly's order poses certain economic harm, particularly to small-boat fishermen who do their catching close to shore.
The federal Commerce Department, which oversees NMFS, said the need to protect endangered sea lions is real, but so is the need to protect people.
``We're concerned that this injunction will have a severe impact on Alaska coastal communities,'' said Robert Mallett, acting commerce secretary. ``The impacts will be greatest on fishermen using smaller vessels, in particular Alaska Native fishermen.''
The trawling ban could cost the fishing industry about $100 million for the rest of this year, and more than $175 million in the first half of 2001, according to the At-Sea Processors Association, which represents larger catcher-processor vessels. The pollock fishery is worth about $1 billion a year.
Thursday's ruling comes in a lawsuit brought in 1998 by several environmental groups against the National Marine Fisheries Service, which manages the pollock and other fisheries.
The injunction barring the trawl fishing takes effect Aug. 8.
``This is a very good day for Steller sea lions,'' said Janis Searles, an attorney with the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which represented plaintiffs Greenpeace USA, American Oceans Campaign and Sierra Club.
Steller sea lion numbers in the region have dropped more than 80 percent in the past 35 years, from an estimated 230,000 animals in 1965 to 34,000 today.
Zilly agreed with the environmental groups that groundfishing may be harming sea lions by reducing their food supply and disrupting their foraging patterns.
Searles said one of the ruling's most significant aspects is its recognition that habitat is of vital importance.
``It doesn't make sense to try to save a species if you don't try to protect its habitat,'' she said.
Critical habitat is defined under the Endangered Species Act as the areas vital to the survival and recovery of a species.
For the western Steller sea lion, considered a distinct population, that area is the Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands region and the central and western Gulf of Alaska. Populations of Steller sea lions east of Prince William Sound are healthy.
Zilly earlier ruled NMFS had failed to adequately study the relationship between groundfishing and sea lion declines, as required under the Endangered Species Act.
In Thursday's ruling, he said the lack of available data makes it impossible for NMFS to properly manage the fisheries.
``In the absence of a completed comprehensive biological opinion, NMFS has not, and cannot, insure that continued fishing in designated critical habitat will not result in harm to endangered Steller sea lions,'' the judge wrote.
Last year, sea lion critical habitat was the source of about 40 percent of the pollock caught in the Bering Sea-Aleutians and Gulf of Alaska. The percentage was even higher for Pacific cod.
Carol Tocco, a NMFS spokeswoman in Juneau, said the agency is working on the biological opinion sought by Zilly, as well as another required study examining the effect of groundfishing on all species in the area. The first study is expected to be done by October and the second by January.
Beth Stewart, natural resources director for the Aleutians East Borough, said her area would be badly hurt if the trawling ban stands. The borough intervened in the case as a defendant.
Smaller catcher boats have been accustomed to fishing in critical habitat areas. They would have to go farther out to sea to fish, which would raise operating costs. They might also change where they deliver their fish.
``If a plant reliant on shore-based deliveries doesn't get enough fish, that plant won't stay open,'' she said. The borough's treasury would also be threatened, she said, because fish-landing taxes are its largest source of revenue.