FAIRBANKS The U.S. Department of Justice won't appeal a court decision that banned, at least temporarily, most of the groundfish harvests along the western Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.
The agency's decision runs contrary to requests from the National Marine Fisheries Service and Alaska's congressional delegation.
Carol Tocco, a spokeswoman for the fisheries service in Juneau, said she received a brief statement about the decision from her superiors Monday.
The solicitor general has directed that no appeal be taken from the district court's order, the message said.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly of Seattle last month ordered a halt to all groundfish fishing within 20 miles of Steller sea lion rookeries and haul-outs. That order was effective Aug. 8.
Zilly said the fisheries service had not proved its regulations would protect the declining population of Steller sea lions in the western Gulf and the Aleutians.
The ban applies while the fisheries service develops new studies and recommendations for the judge. Those are due Oct. 31.
The sea lion population in Western Alaska has dropped from an estimated 180,000 animals in the mid-1960s to less than 50,000 today.
Sea lion rookeries and haul-outs dot the western Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian chain, so the judge's order effectively closes most of the near-coast areas to groundfish harvests from Cordova to Attu.
The ban applies in state waters, as well.
Half the groundfish harvest comes from those areas. It is the nation's largest fishery, taking about 5 billion pounds of fish worth almost $1 billion. Groundfish include pollock, cod, rockfish and Atka mackerel.
Industry spokesmen have said the ban will hit small fishermen the hardest because they don't have boats capable of venturing safely 20 miles into the open ocean. Fishing openings generally are spread across the year, with catch limits in some areas near sea lion havens. No fishing is allowed, however, from Nov. 1 through Jan. 20.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta, whose department oversees the fisheries service, said in a recent letter to Rep. Don Young that he hoped the judge's decision would be appealed.
Young earlier had written to both Mineta and Attorney General Janet Reno, who heads the Justice Department, asking that the ruling be appealed.
Young chairs the House Resources Committee. The Alaska Republican said he wanted the judge's ban lifted while the case is appealed and while fisheries managers prepare a more thorough analysis for the judge.
Dave Whaley, a Resources Committee aide, said it appears sea lions are declining because of a shift in the ocean environment not because of overfishing.
Nonetheless, the fisheries service has reduced fishing areas significantly.
Everything they've done is focused on moving the fisheries away from the haul-outs and rookeries, Whaley said.
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