ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The National Marine Fisheries Service announced Tuesday it will consider dialing back commercial fishing restrictions in the western Aleutian Islands that were put in place to protect endangered Steller sea lions.
The agency will take public comment on five alternatives for measures aimed at protecting sea lions with an eye toward reducing the economic effect on fishermen seeking Pacific cod, pollock and Atka mackerel.
Four of the alternatives, including the agency’s preliminary preference, would loosen fishing restrictions put in place two years ago.
The agency is under a court order to provide additional public review of the environmental work it did before putting restrictions in place. Steller sea lions feed on the same fish sought by commercial fishermen and Mike LeVine, a staff attorney for Oceana, said modifying restrictions would continue a cycle of controversy and litigation.
“All of the action alternatives are steps backwards that simply authorize more fishing,” he said.
Commercial fishing groups and the state of Alaska sued to overturn the restrictions. Doug Vincent-Lang, director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation, said the state is pleased that the federal agency is correcting flaws in the public process but worried that the latest environmental impact statement continues to connect commercial fishing to Steller sea lion nutritional stress and thus a nosedive in population numbers.
The western sea lion range begins east of Cordova and stretches west to include all of the Aleutian Islands. The western population in the early 1980s was estimated at 250,000. The current population is estimated at 52,000.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess ruled that the NMFS followed acceptable procedures for concluding that fishing must be curtailed because sea lions were nutritionally stressed and not getting enough to eat. However, he faulted the agency for its environmental review and concluded more public review was needed.
The public will have 60 days to comment on the proposals starting Friday.