FAIRBANKS -- The Clinton administration proposed paying Alaska fishermen $75 million to compensate for a halt to groundfish harvests near habitat of endangered Steller sea lions, Sen. Ted Stevens says, but he rejected the money as inadequate.
The Alaska Republican says he will continue to push for legislation lifting a court-ordered ban on bottom fishing near rookeries and haulouts.
Congress returns Dec. 5 to finish a few spending bills that remained when it adjourned prior to the election. Stevens said his language lifting the ban will be in the final legislation.
Alaska's fishing industry was staggered last July when U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly of Seattle halted bottom fishing in sea lion critical habitat "until further order of this court." The ruling came in a lawsuit by environmental groups.
The restricted areas include three huge ocean zones and 20-mile rings, more than 120 of them, around sea lion rookeries and haulouts from Prince William Sound to Kodiak to the western Aleutians.
The judge rapped the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to prepare legally adequate biological opinions assessing how the commercial fisheries affect sea lions and how fisheries can be managed to avoid jeopardizing them.
After the judge's sweeping closure, the fall season pollock catch totaled only 22 million pounds, less than a third of the quota.
The next pollock season is scheduled for January, but the judge could decide the fisheries service hasn't yet conducted the analysis required by law. The service expects to release a new biological opinion on Thursday.
Stevens says he believes the agency's biological opinion will back the argument that fishing near haulouts and rookeries is the problem. He doesn't think scientific research so far supports that conclusion, though, and plans legislation that would end the fishing ban.
A $75 million payment to the fishermen wouldn't make up for the lost fish, Stevens said.
"We pointed out to them (administration officials) that the pollock fishermen just initiate this economy," he said. Processors, transporters, distributors and restaurants all depend on the fish, he said.
"Seventy-five million wouldn't even touch the effect on the economy of this decision," he said.
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