Independent Reviewers Critical of NMFS Plan to Restrict Fishing in Aleutians

Independent reviewers of a federal biological opinion that continued
groundfish fishing in the Aleutians would likely jeopardize the continued existence
of endangered Steller sea lion have concluded this opinion is not supported by sound
“There is no direct evidence that by removing fish, these fisheries
compete with Steller sea lions in the central and western Aleutians and elsewhere,”
wrote W.D. Bowen, one of three members of the Center for Independent Exports panel
engaged by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“Overall, the review finds all of fishery –induced and natural
nutritional stress, and killer whale predation, to be possible,” wrote Kevin Stokes,
another of the reviewers. “The reality is that the reasons for Steller sea lion
lack of recovery in some sub-regions are complicated and may never be unraveled.”
A third panel member, Brent Stewart, found that “speculative
and hypothetical suggestions for jeopardy and adverse modification do not, I think,
meet the standard established by the Endangered Species Act, to conclude that the
actions have a substantial chance (likely) of jeopardy and adverse modification.”
Federal fisheries officials made a decision in late 2010 to restrict
commercial Atka mackerel and Pacific cod fisheries in the western Aleutians, home
of the western population of Steller sea lions, which was listed as endangered in
1997. Their numbers have substantially declined since the early 1970s. The decision
to restrict this multi-million dollar fishery came after extensive testimony for
and against such action, over how the harvest of these fish affected the health
of Steller sea lions.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, has asked NMFS to respond to the
review, saying the fishing closures imposed as a result of the biological opinion
are estimated to have cost industry millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs.