ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — 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 estimate at 52,000.
The cause of the crash has not been determined. NMFS put fishing restrictions in place in 2011.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess ruled that 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.
NMFS in March came up with preliminary recommendations and consulted with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees commercial fishing in federal waters. The council's preferred alternative loosens restrictions by spreading commercial harvest over different times and locations.
LeVine said commercial fishing restrictions already have passed court review.
"The National Marine Fisheries Service has identified protection measures that comply with the Endangered Species Act, that have been upheld in court, and are consistent with the agency's longstanding position that fisheries may compete with top predators like Steller sea lions." he said.
Vincent-Lang said the state has appealed Burgess' ruling and hopes to see it overturned on appeal.
Meanwhile, he said, the agency's own three-scientist panel of independent reviewers concluded that the federal government's decision to restrict commercial fishing was not supported by sound science. One reviewer said fishing restrictions were based on speculative and hypothetical suggestions of adverse effects on sea lions.
"They're correcting the public process flaws that the court identified and asked them to address but they're not going back and addressing the fundamental science flaws," Vincent-Lang said.
The public will have 60 days to comment on the proposals starting Friday.