ANCHORAGE - Atka mackerel and Pacific cod fisheries in western Alaska should close so that endangered sea lions can get enough to eat, government scientists said Monday.
A report by the National Marine Fisheries Service said current fishing practices don't appear to be affecting endangered whales but that is not the case with Steller sea lions, whose numbers have declined dramatically.
About 45,000 sea lions lived on the western Aleutian Islands in 2008, compared with perhaps 250,000 in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They were listed as endangered in 1997 under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Fishermen harvest more than 4 billion pounds of fish from the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska each year. Most of the world's sea lions live along Alaska's vast coastline.
"We need to mitigate the potential competition for food in areas where sea lion numbers are declining," said Jim Balsiger, regional NOAA fisheries manager.
In the 800-page draft biological opinion, scientists recommended closing the Atka mackerel and Pacific cod fisheries in the western Aleutians. The two species are the most prominent food source for western Alaska sea lions.
The report also suggested less stringent measures for the central Aleutians, including fishery closures in the vicinity of sea lion rookeries and areas where the marine mammals rest.
The huge Bering Sea pollock fishery - the largest fishery by volume in the United States - will remain unchanged under the plan.
Environmental group Oceana said the report doesn't go far enough to help sea lions in the western Aleutians recover. Very similar recommendations were made a decade ago, said Jon Warrenchuk, Oceana scientist.
Oceana lawyer Michael LeVine said the agency "took the easy way out by making small changes around the edges" instead of doing an overhaul of fisheries management.
David Benton, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, an industry group, said perhaps government scientists went too far.
"We are concerned about what this is going to do to the western Aleutians and if all the measures are necessary," Benton said.
Benton said the report needs independent peer review and more time for public comment before it is finalized.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is expected to review the draft biological opinion at a special meeting to be held in Anchorage in mid-August.
The public comment period closes Aug. 27. The recommendations could go into effect at the start of next year.