In response to the Steller sea lion crisis

My turn

Posted: Thursday, December 28, 2000

A large group of Alaska industry and coastal community representatives have been meeting almost daily for the past three months in response to the Steller sea lion crisis. We come from virtually every part of the state, and represent tens of thousands of Alaskans directly impacted by the new management measures. We think the ... (guest editorial from the Anchorage Daily News published in Tuesday's Empire) was extremely misguided.

We strongly supported Sen. Ted Stevens' measure, and thank him for it because it will do exactly the opposite of what the editorial stated: It will provide rather than "deny the public a full chance to see, understand, and participate in the decision-making."

The 500-page biological opinion released by NMFS on Dec. 1 was prepared behind closed doors for almost a year, with no hearings, no opportunity for public comment, no input from the North Pacific Council or Alaska Board of Fisheries, and no independent scientific review. The opinion will radically alter the management of almost every fishery in Alaska, from the federal pollock and cod fisheries to the state salmon and herring fisheries, and will make unilateral changes to management frameworks that have been developed and refined by federal and state fishery managers for decades. All this will be done with absolutely no scientific evidence that these restrictions will either help or harm Stellers.

In the nearly 25 years since Stevens wrote the federal law extending U.S. fisheries jurisdiction to 200 miles, the combined size of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska pollock and cod stocks have nearly doubled. The North Pacific Council is recognized as the best and most conservative fisheries management body in the world. Unlike New England, Russia, and elsewhere in the world, Alaska groundfish stocks are abundant and healthy. There is simply no excuse for NMFS to have bypassed the council process, or the public input that it affords.

During the council meeting two weeks ago, the Fisheries Service's own expert stated on record that "it is clear that the $200 million to $300 million annual impact (of the opinion) on gross product is only a fraction of the likely effect (of the opinion)." Coastal Alaskans have already identified likely negative impacts in excess of $500 million annually from the opinion.

As Alaskans, we are more concerned than anybody, including outside environmental groups, about the decline of the Steller sea lion and about the marine ecosystems that sustain coastal Alaska. However, contrary to the editorial's misguided statements, the "damage" if there is any of taking a brief period to review the opinion before implementing it, will not be "irreversible." In 1997, just before NMFS and the council implemented the first round of massive fishery restrictions that, among other things, reduced Bering Sea pollock fishing inside Steller sea lion areas by more than 50 percent, NMFS estimated that "extinction for the entire Kenai-to-Kiska region (the endangered western Steller sea lion stock) could occur in the next 100-120 years." Not that it would occur in another century, that it could occur. NMFS reiterated this estimate in the recent biological opinion as well.

Stevens made a compromise with President Clinton that simply phases in the restrictions proposed by NMFS over the course of 2001, rather than fully implementing them in the next month. In the meantime, the North Pacific Council will review the measures to make sure they're consistent with other requirements in federal law, such as to avoid bycatch and waste in the fisheries; the National Academy of Sciences will review the science upon which the opinion is based; and the state of Alaska can begin to prepare for the challenges raised by the opinion in state water fisheries. Fishery restrictions have and will continue to be imposed, even though the Science and Statistical Committee of the North Pacific Council concluded earlier this month that, "There is no guarantee that implementation (of the restrictions) will result in recovery of the Steller sea lion population because we do not know the cause of the decline or what presently prevents recovery. The SSC continues to call for analysis of the relative importance of commercial fisheries among all the factors that may be contributing to the lack of recovery."

We thank Stevens for his concern for Alaska, and for doing what it took to get a reasonable and fair solution. We hope the ADN will reconsider its short-sighted position.

Trevor McCabe, At-sea Processors Association; Al Burch, Alaska Draggers Association; Jay Stinson, Pelagic Resources, Inc.; Robin Samuelsen, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp.; Dick Jacobsen, mayor, Aleutians East Borough; Beth Stewart, Aleutians East Borough; Eugene Asicksik, Norton Sound Economic Development Corp.; John Garner, Norquest Seafoods-Adak; Glenn Reed, Pacific Seafood Processors Association; Larry Cotter, Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association; John Gauvin, Groundfish Forum; Jeff Stephan, United Fishermen's Marketing Association; Matt Moir, Alaska Pacific Seafoods; Gerald Ensley, Global Seafoods Kodiak; Chris Blackburn, Alaska Groundfish Data Bank; Phillip Lestenkof, Central Bering Sea Fishermen's Association; John Winther, Prowler Fisheries; Carolyn Floyd, mayor, city of Kodiak; Brent Paine, United Catcher Boats; Dave Fraser, High Seas Catcher's Cooperative; Sandra Moller, Aleut Enterprise Corp.; John Sevier, Sitka Sound Seafoods; Gerry Merrigan, Petersburg Vessel Owners Association.

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