Court Rules That NMFS Properly Imposed Fishing Restrictions to Protect Sea Lions

A federal judge in Anchorage says that commercial fishing restrictions to protect Steller sea lions in the western Aleutian Islands were properly imposed, but likely will order the National Marine Fisheries Service to prepare an environmental impact statement.

US District Judge Timothy Burgess handed down his decision Jan. 19 in Anchorage, in litigation brought against NMFS by the state of Alaska and the Alaska Seafood Cooperative. Burgess set a Feb. 8 deadline to file briefs responding to the court’s proposed decision. The case is seen by some as critical to the future of the commercial Pacific cod and Atka mackerel fisheries in the western Aleutians, and by others as critical to the future survival of the endangered Steller sea lions.

Commercial fishing interests engaged in the Pacific cod and Atka mackerel fisheries in the western Aleutians say the initial rule is causing them to lose millions of dollars annually in fish they cannot harvest. By NMFS’s own estimate, “the loss to the groundfish industry is $44 million to $61 million annually,” said Linda Larson, an attorney for the Alaska Seafood Cooperative.
John Gauvin, an industry veteran currently working as science director for the Alaska Seafood Cooperative, said he was disappointed that the judge didn’t see that NMFS misapplied the jeopardy standard.

The trend for the western Aleutians was that the Stellers were declining, he said.

“They used that to conclude that the overall population of Stellers was in jeopardy. The bi-op (biological opinion) doesn’t demonstrate that the decline in one small population area jeopardized the overall population of sea lions. In fact, NMFS admitted that overall the western population is increasing overall by 1.5 percent,” he said.

Environmental attorneys with Oceana, who intervened in the case, meanwhile applauded the judge’s decision to keep the protections in place, to reduce competition for fish between large-scale commercial fisheries and the endangered Steller sea lions.

“It’s a good day for our oceans,” said Susan Murray, Oceana’s senior director for the Pacific region.

On the heels of the Burgess ruling came a report from researchers at Oregon State University and the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward noting that killer whales and other ocean predators are killing Steller sea lions pups in increasingly high numbers.

The researchers had monitored 36 juvenile sea lions in Alaska’s Kenai Fjords and Prince William Sound region of the Gulf of Alaska from 2005 through 2011 and documented, using tag data transmitted by satellite, the deaths of 11 pups. Results of their work, plus a computer model o survival rates, “suggest predation on juvenile sea lions as the largest impediment to recover of the species in the eastern Gulf of Alaska region,” the researchers said in a report published online Jan. 17 in the scientific journal PLoS One.